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Why the U.S. Army Is Our Best Weapon Against Ebola Now

Seyllou, AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. is sending up to 3,000 military personnel to West Africa for an unprecedented fight—against Ebola. Will it make a dent in combatting a crisis that has killed at least 2,630 people and has infected thousands more? 

Experts say it could.

The first plane will arrive in Liberia's capital this Friday, carrying 25 hospital beds and other supplies. It's the beginning of an operation that will build 17 treatment centers with 100 beds each. In addition to building these centers, U.S. military personnel will also set up facilities to train 500 health care providers each week, instructing them on the best methods both for treatment and transporting the ill. The military is establishing a command center in Liberia's capital to coordinate international efforts. More assistance is on its way: FranceBritain, and other countries are starting to announce additional commitments to stop Ebola's spread. 

Howard Markel, an expert on communicable disease and epidemics who wrote the book When Germs Travel, says the army has recently done more on epidemic control "than almost any other organization outside of the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control]." He says that's because the spread of disease relates to "defense issues—how to protect men and women in uniform from getting sick, how would you keep the men and women in uniform from bringing germs back from the field." 

Markel, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, adds the military began preparing for this kind of problem following the bioterror and bird flu scares of the previous decade. 

Right now, Ebola is spreading much faster than the medical response. Liberia particularly has been devastated by the epidemic, with 14 of its 15 counties containing confirmed Ebola cases. The disease has been a few steps ahead—especially when it comes to treating and tracking down new cases. Not just that, but the health community has faced resistance (sometimes violent resistance) in trying to spread awareness. A month ago, Guinea saw riots. On Tuesday, six journalists and medics were attacked and then disappeared, according to a report today from the BBC

It will take some time see what effect a military presence is having. While the shipments of equipment begin arriving Friday, and the Associated Press reported that it will take roughly two weeks for the forces to arrive. But organizations that have been fighting the epidemic on the ground seem to think it will make a difference, even if there’s much more to do. 

"If implemented swiftly, the deployment of new Ebola management centers, qualified staff and health personnel training could begin reversing the trend of the fight we have collectively been losing against Ebola,” Doctors Without Borders Director of Operations Brice de le Vingne said in a statement.