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21-day quarantine ordered for U.S. troops on Ebola mission to Africa

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed an order Wednesday requiring all U.S. troops returning from Ebola-stricken West Africa to be quarantined for 21 days to guarantee they don’t have the virus.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended on Tuesday that all military personnel involved in the humanitarian mission in West Africa should undergo “controlled, supervised monitoring.”

The Pentagon’s move goes beyond precautions recommended by the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Preventions for doctors and other civilians returning from areas with Ebola.

President Obama said Tuesday that the military situation is different, however, because the troops are not in West Africa “voluntarily.”

Some 1,030 U.S. troops are currently building isolation wards, training health care workers, processing laboratory samples and providing other assistance in Liberia, the hardest-hit country, and neighboring Senegal, where the military has set up a staging area to move supplies.

U.S. troops are not directly treating Ebola patients, the Pentagon said.

Hagel ordered a detailed implementation plan within 15 days on how the quarantine effort will work.

Hagel “believes these initial steps are prudent given the large number of military personnel transiting from their home base and West Africa and the unique logistical demands and impact this deployment has on the force,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.

The Joint Chiefs will review the plan within 45 days to determine if controlled monitoring is still necessary and should continue, officials said.

The Pentagon has already quarantined the first troops who visited Liberia.

Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, commander of U.S. Army Forces in Africa, and 11 other soldiers have been isolated and are being monitored at a U.S. military installation at Vicenza, Italy.

Williams flew to Liberia last month to form an advance team before another commander took over Sunday.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has detected slowing in the number of reported new cases of Ebola infections in West Africa in recent days, leading its top official in charge of combating the outbreak to express cautious optimism Wednesday that health workers may be gaining a modicum of control over the disease.

“It appears the trend is real. There may be a slowing of the epidemic there,” said Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general. “Do we feel confident that the response is now getting the upper hand on the virus? Yes, we are seeing a slowing of the rate of new cases, very definitely.”

Still, Aylward provided statistics that showed the outbreak is more than a third larger than had been tallied just four days earlier. At least 13,703 cases of Ebola had been recorded in this outbreak, he said. Only Saturday, the caseload stood at 10,141.

Of those cases, 4,920 people had died as of Monday, the WHO said in an update. It described the transmission of Ebola as “persistent and widespread” in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

– McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.