WASHINGTON -- Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) traveled to the West African nation of Liberia this week, partly to remind the American people that an Ebola epidemic is still going on, Coons told reporters Monday.
"My hope was to remind the American people that this is an investment that helps keep the world safe, not just help Liberians, although helping Liberia is a worthy goal in and of itself," Coons said on a conference call in response to a question from HuffPost.
Coons is the first and only member of Congress to visit West Africa since the Ebola outbreak started in March. As part of a broader spending bill last week, Congress approved $2.5 billion to help the region fight the disease, though American politicians have largely stopped talking about Ebola after a panicky few weeks in October.
The World Health Organization reports nearly 7,000 people have died from Ebola, almost all of them in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, with the rate of new transmissions declining in Liberia thanks partly to U.S. help. Coons said he met with some of the 2,000 U.S. troops still deployed there to help build field clinics.
Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf testified before Coons' subcommittee on African affairs Dec. 10 via video conference. She thanked the United States for helping fight the outbreak but said that despite recent improvements, Ebola has seriously disrupted Liberia's social, economic and cultural fabric.
"It has destroyed many of our hard-fought development gains, wreaked havoc on our economy, exposed the weakness of our public health systems, interrupted our infrastructure development, closed schools, restrained travel and shattered the lives of our people," Sirleaf said. "The disease has subjected us to a stigma all over the world, creating a fear more destructive than Ebola itself."
Coons said he's taking plenty of precautions to avoid contracting the disease, and avoiding clinics where sick Ebola patients are being treated. "Every place I’ve gone I’m washing my hands with chlorine. Instead of handshakes we're doing the 'elboa,'" he said, referring to bumping elbows.
He said he'd be taking his temperature every day for three weeks once he returns to the U.S. on Tuesday. "I’ll be sleeping in the guest room for a little while when I get back," he said.