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Govt running out of excuses on Ebola

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The Federal Government is running out of excuses not to send Australian medical teams to west Africa to help battle the Ebola epidemic after it was revealed foreign governments are willing to treat health workers that fall ill with the deadly disease.

In a startling admission at a Senate estimates hearing this morning, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Peter Varghese said US and European governments 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,” he 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.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Health Minister Peter Dutton have steadfastly rejected calls by the AMA and others for the Government to send health teams to west Africa, citing a lack of arrangements in place for the evacuation of workers who become ill.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has led a chorus of criticism of the Government over its refusal to send health workers and medical equipment to the stricken countries amid increasingly urgent warnings the outbreak had become a major international health crisis.

The World Health Organisation 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 so far the Australian Government has committed just $18 million to the 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 yesterday 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 last night. “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