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Doctors, nurses worldwide called to help tackle deadly Ebola outbreak

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The World Health Organisation has launched an international 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 worst Ebola virus outbreak on record.

As the death toll from the disease has jumped to more than 1500 people, the WHO is helping coordinate international efforts to treat the deadly infection and combat its spread, and has specifically called for specialists in infection control and prevention to support the work of medical teams on the ground.

The appeal came as the Federal Government announced it was providing the WHO with $1 million to help fund efforts to combat the outbreak.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that although there have been no cases of Ebola in Australia and the risk of its spreading here was low, the nation was responding to the WHO’s declaration that the outbreak constituted an international public health emergency.

The WHO has reported that, as at 29 August, there had been 3052 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of the infection in West Africa, resulting in 1546 deaths. In a more promising development for health authorities, the current outbreak of the disease has not proved as deadly as in the past, with a survival rate of 47 per cent survival rate – well down from a mortality rate of around 90 per cent recorded in previous outbreaks.

But, underlining the urgency of its worldwide appeal for health workers to join the international effort to control the outbreak, the WHO said there had been an “unprecedented” number of doctors, nurses and other health staff infected with the deadly disease.

By the end of August, more than 240 health workers had contracted Ebola, and more than half had died, the WHO said.

“Ebola has taken the lives of prominent doctors in Sierra Leone and Liberia, depriving these countries not only of experienced and dedicated medical care, but also of inspiring national heroes,” the UN agency said.

It said the disease’s heavy toll of health workers was due to a number of factors including a shortage of personal protective equipment, a paucity of qualified medical staff, the dedication of doctors and nurses to work in isolation wards for far longer than is considered safe, and a lack of knowledge in proper infection prevention and control techniques.

The fact that the disease has spread to cities is also significant, leading to “vastly increased opportunities for undiagnosed cases to have contact with hospital staff. Neither doctors nor the public are familiar with the disease…[and] doctors and nurses may see no reason to suspect Ebola and see no need to take protective measures”.

Just such a scenario has played out in Senegal, where a visiting Guinean student suffering what was thought to be malaria sought treatment in a Dakar hospital. It was subsequently confirmed that he was infected with Ebola, sparking an emergency effort by health authorities to track everyone he had been in contact with.

Rates of infection in the outbreak continue to climb, with estimates that ultimately up to 20,000 people will become infected – meaning, at current fatality rates, that more than 10,000 people could be killed – making it the deadliest Ebola infection on record.

Adrian Rollins