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Ebola: ‘Send us medics, not money’

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The clamour for the Federal Government to contribute more than just money to international efforts to tackle the Ebola emergency is intensifying, with the AMA leading calls for the urgent dispatch of portable hospitals and fully-equipped medical teams to the epicentre of the outbreak in west Africa.

The rapid spread of the deadly disease in recent weeks – more than 4000 people have died in the outbreak, out of more than 8000 infected – has highlighted the inadequacy of the global response to date, with military and civilian medical teams from the United States, Britain, Europe and other developed countries only now starting to make a difference on the ground.

Until now, the burden of coping with the world’s worst Ebola outbreak has fallen on the shambolic health systems of poor west African countries, UN agencies including the World Health Organisation, and humanitarian organisations including the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres, which have been overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that more than one million people could be infected with Ebola by the end of the year unless there is a major step-up in global efforts to contain the outbreak.

Early this month, the Abbott Government lifted its contribution to tackling the international public health emergency to $18 million, to be funnelled through the WHO, the Red Cross, MSF and similar organisations.

But AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis is among a chorus of critics who have condemned the response as inadequate and demanded that the Commonwealth do more.

“We welcome the announcement of $18 million, but we think the Government has to do a lot more work, with a lot more urgency, to make arrangements with international partners to enable Australians to get on to the ground,” Dr Parnis said.

He said the CDC’s estimates meant that half a million people could be dead from Ebola by the end of the year unless countries like Australia vastly increased their effort to control the disease.

The inadequacy of the Government’s strategy was laid bare by MSF Australia when it said the extra funding would not help.

MSF has reported it is currently operating at capacity and cannot deploy more health workers, regardless of extra funds.

Instead, it said, there was a desperate need for more fully-equipped foreign medical teams and facilities to be sent.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has so far resisted urgings that it coordinate the deployment of Australian medical workers, arguing that it could not responsibly do so without first putting in place evacuation procedures for any Australian health worker who might become infected with the virus.

Ms Bishop said the 30-hour flight time between Australia and west Africa made any such evacuation a near-impossibility.

“I do not have in place a guarantee that should an Australian health worker – sent there by the Australian government – contract Ebola, they would be able to be transported or treated in a hospital either in the region or in Europe,” the Minister said on Saturday. “And until I have that in place we will not be sending Australian health workers.”

But Dr Parnis said other countries had already established evacuation arrangements for their nationals, and the Federal Government should negotiate access to these for Australian health workers in case of infection.

He said that, just as Australia was part of an international coalition fighting terrorists in northern Iraq, so it should work with other countries to combat Ebola, including negotiating evacuation procedures for its nationals.

Dr Parnis said there were dozens of highly-trained health professionals, including from Royal Darwin Hospital’s National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, ready to go to west Africa as part of international efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak.

But their deployment needs to be coordinated by the Federal Government with the World Health Organisation, and this include make evacuation procedures.

The French Government, through the WHO, has agreed to develop an international protocol for overseeing evacuations, which would in effect mean that foreign health workers of any nationality would be evacuated to the most appropriate place, in accordance with their clinical circumstance.

The emergence of confirmed cases of Ebola outside west Africa – a Liberian man died of the disease in a Texas hospital last week, one of the nurses caring for him has been diagnosed with the disease and a Spanish nursing assistant was gravely ill after helping care for two missionaries repatriated with the infection who later died – has fuelled fears it could spread internationally.

Dr Parnis said the cases highlighted the fact that modern travel and communications meant no-one could afford to ignore the outbreak, no matter how far away it was.

But he emphasised that, while there was a risk the disease could appear in Australia, the nation’s excellent health system was well prepared if it did appear.

Dr Parnis said it was in the nation’s self-interest, as well as its duty as a good global citizen, to do everything it could to halt the spread of Ebola at its source in west Africa.

“The best protection against having Ebola here is to stop its spread there,” he said. “The Prime Minister talks about global events having an effect on Australian national security. I completely agree, and I think that this is a key example of that, and our action or inaction will be remembered.”

Adrian Rollins