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Govt told to ‘show leadership’ on Ebola

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AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has demanded that Prime Minister Tony Abbott “show some leadership” on the intensifying Ebola health emergency amid mounting international concerns about the disease’s spread.

A/Professor Owler said confirmation that a second Texas hospital nurse has been infected with the deadly virus was a matter of “great concern”, and the Government needed to urgently convene a high level group of experts to review the nation’s preparedness for the Ebola virus and discuss its response to the west African outbreak.

“I am surprised that the Government has not convened a meeting of experts to look at Australia’s preparedness and its response, both locally and in terms of sending people to west Africa,” the AMA President said, pointing to US President Barack Obama’s decision to push other matters to one side and hold an emergency meeting of top health officials at the White House to coordinate the country’s Ebola strategy.

“We need to have the same sort of leadership President Obama has shown in the US here in Australia,” A/Professor Owler said. “This is the time that our Government, particularly the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health [Peter Dutton] need to step up and make sure that Australia is prepared for a case of Ebola in terms of its hospitals, but also to look at ways that we can address our international response.”

The Government has come under mounting criticism for its refusal to organise the deployment of health teams and medical equipment in west Africa to aid international efforts to halt the spread of the disease.

So far it has committed just $18 million to the effort, despite escalating warnings from the World Health Organisation, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies about the threat posed by the outbreak, which has so far claimed more than 4500 lives.

The WHO has predicted that by December there could be as many as 10,000 new cases a week unless the disease is rapidly contained.

In a chilling assessment, the WHO said the global community had just 60 days to bring the outbreak under control or face an “unprecedented situation for which we don’t have a plan”.

Health systems in the countries at the centre of the outbreak – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – have been overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, and humanitarian organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Red Cross have reported that they are operating at capacity.

The UN Security Council has declared the outbreak an international public health emergency, and countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and Cuba have despatched teams of health workers and military personnel as well as medical equipment and supplies to help slow the spread of the disease.

But the Abbott Government has so far held firm in its refusal to aid in the deployment of health workers and medical equipment to the stricken region.

In the press conference earlier today, Mr Dutton reiterated the Government’s opposition to sending health workers to west Africa without a medical evacuation plan in place, citing the long air travel time between west Africa and Australia.

Prime Minister Abbott said the Government would reconsider its position if the disease appeared in Asia.

But Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek said the gravity of the situation demanded a much more substantial response from Australia, including the deployment of medical personnel.

Ms Plibersek mocked the Government’s explanation as to why it would not sanction the deployment of Australian health workers in west Africa as “just not credible”.

The AMA has repeatedly urged the Government to negotiate evacuation arrangements with countries that already have nationals on the ground in west Africa.

A/Professor Owler said the infection with Ebola of two Texas nurses had underlined the need for Australian hospitals to review their protocols and procedures, and to make sure that all involved in providing health care, including not just doctors and nurses but cleaners, waste disposal workers and others, were well equipped and prepared in case the disease did reach the country.

“It remains unlikely that we will have a case [of Ebola], but it is certainly not impossible,” he said.

Adrian Rollins

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