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Govt takes private path on Ebola

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AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has urged the Federal Government to consider deploying AusMAT teams to assist the international fight against Ebola in west Africa following the announcement that a private company has been engaged to staff a treatment centre in Sierra Leone.

A/Professor Owler said the Government’s decision to engage Australian-based global health provider Aspen Medical to staff and operate a United Kingdom-built 100-bed Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone was a welcome development given the enormous scale of the outbreak gripping west Africa.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said earlier today the Government would provide up to $20 million in the next eight months to support the operation of the facility, which will have 240 staff.

Mr Abbott said most of the health workers engaged would be local, though some staff would be hired internationally, including possibly some Australians.

The arrangement, thrashed out in discussions with UK and European governments, removes the key roadblock cited by the Government in resisting international pressure to send Australian health workers to west Africa.

“The Government has said consistently that it would not deploy Australians to Ebola-affected countries without a credible plan for their treatment or medical evacuation,” Mr Abbott said. “Australia has now received credible assurances for in-country treatment and medical evacuation for Australian volunteers who provide health care in west Africa.”

A/Professor Owler said the issue had never been about bringing infected health workers directly back to Australia, and the aim had always been to ensure any volunteers who became infected could be treated in west Africa, where possible, or be evacuated to countries like Britain or Germany where necessary.

“We are pleased that arrangements are now in place and we now need to move forward,” he said.

This is the latest major government health contract awarded to Aspen Medical, which had also been subcontracted by Medibank Private offshoot Medibank Health Solutions to provide on-base health services for Australian Defence Force personnel.

Mr Abbott said the Government had decided to engage a private provider rather than provide the medical services itself because “it is a health emergency, not a military emergency”.

“We are not sending people over,” the PM added.

But A/Professor Owler said that, while the Ebola epidemic was indeed a health emergency, it was also a humanitarian crisis with security and economic issues, and that, in addition to engaging Aspen, the Government should also be looking at deploying Darwin-based AusMAT teams to west Africa.

“We know that there are people in the AUSMAT [Australian Medical Assistance] teams that have done work in places like the Philippines who are prepared and ready for deployment, and who would volunteer to go and do this work,” he said. “There are pre-existing facilities and personnel that we can actually use for treatment in west Africa.”

He said he would be speaking with “a number of people” at Aspen in coming days to ensure that the people it was hiring and deploying to west Africa would have the training and resources they need.

“We need to keep a close eye on the training, the sfety of those health care workers, make sure it is effective.”

The AMA President said the key to bringing the outbreak – which is estimated to have so far killed more than 5000 people and infected close to 15,000 – under control was to get as many people as possible into treatment facilities.

Mr Abbott said that, while the Government was engaging Aspen to boost international efforts on the ground in west Africa, it would also beef up preparations for any possible outbreak in the region.

“Consistent with the Government’s long-standing priority to keep our country and our region safe from Ebola, we will provide an initial package of up to $2 million to train health officials in Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Pacific Islands to prepare for a potential Ebola outbreak,” the Prime Minister said.

But A/Professor Owler said the best way to ensure the safety of the country and the region was to tackle the outbreak at its source in west Africa.

Adrian Rollins