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Govt under pressure to do more 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 announced last week 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.

The announcement followed weeks of pressure for the Government to step-up its response to the epidemic which has so far claimed more than 4800 lives and infected more than 13,000 people.

The AMA first publicly urged the deployment of Australian health workers more than six weeks ago, and both the US and British governments have contacted senior Government ministers to ask that Australia upgrade its efforts.

Government hopes that the Aspen announcement would satisfy these demands appear forlorn.

In addition to A/Professor Owler’s call, United States National Security Adviser Susan Rice has demanded, in unusually forthright language, that Australia do more.

Dr Rice told The Australian Financial Review that “we look to Australia and other partners…to fulfil the commitments they’ve made and do more, quite frankly. Because at this stage there are many needs that remain unmet in the west African region. We continue to look to capable partners like Australia to do their part.”

A senior World Health Organisation has said there are glimmers of hope that the world’s worst-ever Ebola outbreak may be slowing.

In its latest update, the WHO said the rate of new cases in Liberia appeared to be declining, while the outbreak in Guinea appeared to be stabilising. But it is still growing in Sierra Leone.

WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward said evidence of a slow-down in Liberia was welcome, but was at pains to caution that it was far too early to say that the worst of the outbreak was over.

“In Liberia, we’ve seen the disease slowing down. Now we have to be very careful when we say that though — it means it’s going from an exponential rate of growth of what we call a linear, a sort of slower rate of growth,” he said. “In key areas in Guinea and Sierra Leone, we’re also seeing the disease dropping very quickly, and this is mainly because populations are starting to understand the risks associated with Ebola and how to protect themselves and their families from the disease. So that’s very encouraging, it’s going to slow the disease down, but it’s not going to stop it.”

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

Aspen Medical chief executive Glenn Keys said on ABC radio that he expected Australians to comprise between 10 and 20 per cent of total staff, and the company has reported more than 350 health workers have volunteered so far.

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, security and economic emergency, and said that – in addition to engaging Aspen – the Government should also be looking at deploying Darwin-based AUSMAT teams to west Africa.

“AUSMAT teams are prepared and ready for deployment, and would volunteer to go and do this work,” he said.

The Government’s decision to bypass non-government organisations already on the ground in west Africa and engage Aspen has raised eyebrows amid concerns the organisations may not have the competence to run an Ebola treatment centre.

But Mr Key said the company was already operating a clinic in Liberia and signalled its intention to work closely with other organisations already on the ground in Ebola-hit regions.

“We will be working really, really closely with MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres], the WHO [World Health Organisation], Save the Children, as well as the various governments of Britain, Sierra Leone and Australia,” he told the ABC.

“I don’t think we’re going in there operating on our own. We are going to be using all of the experience, including that of the MSF and the WHO,” he said.

Health Minister Peter Dutton said there was nothing unusual in the Government’s decision to appoint Aspen.

Mr Dutton said several European countries had engaged private companies to assist the Ebola effort: “We’re seeing lots of private contractors because they’ve got the capacity and the logistical capacity to deliver very quickly what governments want on the ground”.

The AMA President said the key to bringing the outbreak 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