Pentagon official: U.S. personnel in West Africa could handle Ebola

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Story highlights

  • Some U.S. personnel could be in contact with Ebola in West Africa, Pentagon official says
  • Personnel are trained at "very high level" for such contact, official says
  • Official: Any U.S. personnel infected would be evacuated in specially equipped plane

(CNN)Some of the U.S. military personnel being deployed to Liberia to help tackle the Ebola crisis may come into contact with the virus, a Pentagon official said Tuesday.

Speaking at a press conference, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. David Rodriguez, said that while the majority of U.S. troops involved in the mission would not be exposed to the disease, those in mobile testing labs could have contact in that environment.
"They're all trained at a very, very high level," Rodriguez told reporters of the lab personnel, who constitute a "separate, specialty element of the force."
    The Pentagon has sent three of these mobile labs to Liberia so far, and expects to send more in the coming months, according to Rodriguez. Each mobile lab is staffed by three or four service members, a fraction of the overall military presence in the country.
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    Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters there was "no expectation" that U.S. troops would be "physically, geographically in a situation where that they should be exposed" to Ebola, though he admitted that risk to lab technicians is higher than the troops.
    On Tuesday, Rodriguez emphasized that, "the health and safety of the team supporting this mission is our priority."
    "We will do everything in our power to address and mitigate the potential risk to our service members, civilian employees, contractors and their families," he said.
    If a service member contracts Ebola while in Liberia, Rodriguez said they would be flown to the United States in a specially outfitted plane to a facility equipped to handle their case. Three American civilians who have so far contracted the disease while in West Africa were similarly evacuated.
    But the Pentagon insists they are taking all necessary precautions to keep personnel from becoming infected.
    Troops are completing special training before they deploy and will have to follow strict protocols in the field, which include frequent washing of hands and feet, as well as temperature-taking. They will also have to fill out questionnaires on their physical condition and any symptoms they might be experiencing.
    Up to 4,000 U.S. military personnel have been approved for deployment in this effort, which Gen. Rodriguez said would cost an estimated $750 million over a six month period.