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Australia must act on worst-ever Ebola outbreak

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The worst Ebola outbreak on record is on the verge of becoming a major international public health crisis that demands a much greater response from the Australian Government, AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has said.

While fears that a Gold Coast man recently returned from Congo was infected with Ebola turned out to be unfounded, hundreds of new cases are being detected daily in west Africa.

By late last week the World Health Organisation reported at least 4293 people across five west African countries had been infected with the disease and 2296 had died – though the agency admitted this was likely an underestimate.

“The number of new cases is increasing exponentially,” the WHO said, calling the situation a “dire emergency with … unprecedented dimensions of human suffering”.

Attempts to bring the outbreak under control have so far failed and countries at the centre of the crisis are struggling to cope.

Liberian Minister for National Defence Brownie Samukai told the United Nations Security Council his country was facing “a serious threat to its national existence. The deadly Ebola virus has caused a disruption of the normal functioning of our state”.

A/Professor Owler said that the world was witnessing an “evolving international humanitarian crisis”, and the response so far – including from Australia – had been totally inadequate.

“The AMA acknowledges the recent commitment of $1 million by the Australian Government, but it is clear now that much more needs to be provided,” he said.

The WHO has already formally declared the Ebola outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, and late last month issued a worldwide appeal for doctors and nurses, particularly those experienced in infection prevention and control, to join health teams being sent to West Africa to help control the disease.

The AMA President said a priority for Australia should be to get skilled medical and health professionals, fully equipped with the equipment and medicines they need, on the ground in west Africa as soon as possible.

“We have doctors and nurses who would volunteer to do that work, which is not without its dangers, so we need to get them there, along with the equipment and other resources they need,” he said.

A/Professor Owler said that while Australia and the international community had been quick to act on the threat posed by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq militants in Iraq, the response to the Ebola outbreak had been “terribly slow”.

“If the Government can get military arms airlifted to northern Iraq at short notice, surely we can airlift medical arms and legs to West Africa just as quickly to save lives,” he said. “We need medical supplies. We need resources. We need mobile hospitals and beds and we need support and organisation for our health care workers that I know will be willing to volunteer and go.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation late last week donated $55 million to help combat the Ebola outbreak, which health authorities warn could eventually infect more than 20,000 people.

Director of the WHO’s Department of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases, Dr Sylvie Briand, admitted it was likely the outbreak was even more extensive than current figures suggested.

“We know that the numbers are under-estimated,” Dr Briand told a news briefing in Geneva, as reported by Reuters. “We are currently working to estimate the under-estimation.”

A/Professor Owler said the outbreak was currently “out of control”, but backed assurances by Australian health authorities that it posed little threat to Australia.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley said the risk of Ebola coming to Australia was “extremely low”.

He said procedures were in place to ensure that anyone coming into the country with the disease would be quickly identified, tested, isolated and treated.

“The risk of sustained transmission of Ebola in Australia is negligible,” Professor Baggoley said.

Adrian Rollins

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