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Ebola spreads as Govt dithers

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The death toll from the world’s worst ever Ebola outbreak is set to surge above 5000 as the Federal Government continues to ponder mounting local and international calls for it to do much more to help stem the epidemic.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said the Government is “continuing to talk” with other countries about what further contribution it could make, amid conservative estimates that more than 10,000 have been infected with the deadly disease, fuelling fears the international community will struggle to bring the epidemic under control.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler, who for weeks has been urging a much more vigorous response by the Commonwealth, lashed the Government for what he described as its shambolic approach to the international humanitarian crisis.

Late last week the Government insisted that a 20-member medical team was being assembled for possible deployment overseas, but A/Professor Owler said neither the AMA, the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley nor the Australian Medical Assistance (AUSMAT) team in Darwin knew anything about this group, including what sort of training and other preparations it had undergone.

There had been hopes on the weekend that an official announcement on the deployment of Australian medical teams to west Africa was imminent, but in Parliament yesterday Mr Abbott sought to tone down such expectations, indicating that the Government’s focus was on Australia and its immediate neighbourhood.

“We have a ready reaction team that can deploy at a moment’s notice in our region,” the Prime Minister said. “That is our priority, in our region.”

Mr Abbott said the Government would nonetheless continue to talk with other governments about Australia’s contribution, adding that “I don’t rule out doing something more”.

But A/Professor Owler said the Ebola outbreak, in which 10,141 people had been infected and 4922 had died as at 25 October, was a major humanitarian emergency that required a much more substantial response by the Australian Government.

“Patients are literally dying in the streets of Monrovia and Freetown. There are not enough beds – not even close, with dying patients being turned away,” he said. “The World Health Organisation and the UN have appealed to all countries for help. While funding is essential, the assistance must also arrive in the form of physical and human resources. If the international community, including Australia, fails to act comprehensively now with health care workers and other medical support, hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost.”

The Federal Government has steadfastly resisted calls for Australian medical teams to be deployed in west Africa, citing concerns about repatriation arrangements for health workers who might become infected.

But Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials revealed last week that foreign governments are willing to treat Australian health workers that fall ill with the deadly disease.

In a startling admission at a Senate estimates, DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese said the US and British governments had both appealed directly to Australia to send medical teams and equipment, and had indicated they would give Australian health workers access to care, either on-site or possibly through evacuation, in the event that they became infected with the Ebola virus.

“In recent days some of our discussions have been much more positive about what access Australian health workers might have,” Mr Varghese said.

Though Mr Varghese was at pains to emphasise that the assurances given fell short of a guarantee, they appear to remove the one major barrier standing in the way of the official deployment of Australian health teams to help out in the desperate international effort to halt the spread of Ebola in west Africa and further abroad.

The mathematics of the outbreak are ominous.

Modelling suggests 70 per cent of all those who are infected must be isolated in medical centres if the rate of infection is to slow.

Without effective intervention, the WHO warns that there could soon been 10,000 new infections a week, and the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has warned 1.4 million might have the disease by December.

But, as The Economist has pointed out, the dirt-poor countries at the centre of the outbreak – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – do not have anything like the resources needed to bring the epidemic under control, which instead must come from outsiders.

In recent weeks, frenetic work has been undertaken by the US, the UK, and others to build medical centres in the stricken countries – Liberia’s Ebola treatment capacity has more than doubled in the past three weeks, and the US military is building 17 100-bed facilities in the area.

But, The Economist has said, given the head start that the disease has, and the exponential rate of its spread, even doubling the treatment capacity every few weeks will not be enough to ensure 70 per cent of the infected are isolated, meaning a much greater response is needed.

Meanwhile, Mr Dutton told ABC radio the Government was “weighing up whether or not we can have the safeguards in place if we send health workers into that country”.

“We’re obviously looking at every scenario and the Prime Minister, [Immigration] Minister [Scott] Morrison and myself met [Sunday] afternoon with the chiefs of our respective departments and senior advisors otherwise on just gaming through, if you like, different scenarios and ways in which we can respond very quickly, both domestically and internationally if that’s required,” he said. “I think it’s prudent for us to go through all of the options that might be available.”

So far, the Australian Government has committed $18 million to the international effort.

Mr Varghese said any extra funds to help fight the outbreak would have to come from the aid budget, and the Estimate hearing was told there was currently just $80 million in the aid emergency fund.

The United Nations has estimated that the international community will need to commit at least $US1 billion to bring the outbreak under control, but that figure is seen is too conservative by some, who warn the exponential growth of the outbreak mean it might take up to $US2 billion a month.

A/Professor Owler demanded Mr Abbott “show some leadership” on the intensifying Ebola health emergency amid mounting international concerns about the disease’s spread.

The Ebola debate last week threatened to spiral out of the Government’s control after confusion about what work had been done to prepare Australian health workers for deployment in the Asia-Pacific region in the event that Ebola appeared nearby.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley told a Senate Estimates hearing that no health workers had yet been trained to deal with Ebola.

But he was later contradicted by Mr Dutton and Health Department Secretary Martin Bowles, who claimed that a first-response team of 20 health workers had been “fully trained” to tackle the disease should it appear in the country’s neighbourhood.

“The National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre in Darwin has trained clinical staff in Ebola-specific PPE equipment, and they are able to be deployed at short notice,” Mr Dutton said. “On stand-by are infectious diseases and emergency specialist doctors and nurses who could be deployed from Darwin. They are vaccinated and heat acclimatised for a four-week deployment.”

Adrian Rollins

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