It seems hard to fathom that a virus in Africa can be potentially dangerous to us here in the United States but Ebola is a real and emergent threat. Whether through the virus itself spreading to our shores or by the collapse of established nations that allow terrorist groups a new stronghold, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is on our national security radar screens -- and for a good reason.
More than 5,300 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March. To date more than 2,630 have died in the biggest Ebola outbreak on record. The virus kills 90 percent of the people it infects and its outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests, according to the World Health Organization. The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission. There is no licensed vaccine for Ebola.
President Barack Obama last week announced the United States’ plans to expand military and medical resources to combat the outbreak, constructing Ebola treatment centers with 1,700 beds, training 500 medical workers a week and deploying some 3,000 American military personnel - including doctors - to Liberia and Senegal. The Liberian minister said on Sunday the epidemic threatens to entirely “collapse” three states - Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Last week the U.S. doctor who contracted the virus and was subsequently healed, Dr. Kent Brantly, testified before a senate committee that the use of our military is legitimate to stop this outbreak. He said: “If we do not do something to stop this outbreak now, it quickly could become a matter of U.S. national security - whether that means a regional war that gives terrorist groups like Boko Haram a foothold in West Africa or the spread of the disease into America.”
Liberia was in its 11th year of peace and the Ebola epidemic is striking just as hope was returning to that devastated nation. Only around 40 percent of the country’s healthcare facilities are operational and all schools are closed.
Most doctors agree that the risk of anyone in the United States contracting Ebola is very small - you can’t catch Ebola just by being in proximity to someone who has the virus; it is not airborne like the flu. While the World Health Organization said it expects 20,000 cases within the next nine months, a group of American scientists said the outbreak could infect hundreds of thousands of people before it is brought under control.
With that many people infected, we could see profound political, economic and security implications. The “ripple effects” the president spoke of include economic and humanitarian disasters that pose a threat to global security if these African countries break down. Terrorist groups could use the virus as a bio-weapon. The current outbreak is occurring near an always volatile region that has seen the rise of different terrorist groups. Boko Haram operates there and is the group that abducted more than 200 girls earlier this year.
According to the Washington Post, the U.S. has invested tens of millions of dollars in vaccine and therapy research over the last decade. And a Department of Defense spokesman, when asked if they worried Ebola would be used as a bio-weapon, replied that “the DOD maintains research interests both for protection against intentional use and natural exposure to many diseases that can impact the health of its personnel around the world, and that concern extends to viruses, such as Ebola.”
They should. Back in the 1970s the Soviet Union had a program called VECTOR aimed specifically at researching biotechnology and virology, which is now believed to have had people tasked with creating Ebola and Marburg (a virus similar to Ebola) biological weapons. Funding research into vaccines is a sound protective measure and while we may be doing it out of national security considerations, a vaccine could save lives both here and abroad.
The best way to protect the United States is to stop the outbreak in West Africa.