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Govts take drastic action to tackle worst Ebola outbreak on record

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The World Health Organisation and West African nations have launched a $100 million disease control plan as the worst Ebola outbreak on record continues to spread through the region.

As the death toll from the epidemic reached 729 late last week, officials from the WHO and Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria held an emergency meeting to work on ways to halt the disease, which has so far infected more than 1300 people.

Authorities are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to bring the outbreak under control. The Liberian Government has closed all but four of its borders, while Nigeria has placed a major hospital under quarantine.

“The scale of the Ebola outbreak, and the persistent threat it poses, requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level, and this will require increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination,” said WHO Director General Margaret Chan. “The countries have identified what they need, and WHO is reaching out to the international community to drive the response plan forward.”

The announcement of the plan came as tragic accounts have emerged of the disease’s deadly toll among health workers.

Last week Sierra Leone’s top Ebola doctor, Sheikh Umar Khan, who had personally treated more than 100 Ebola patients, died from complications associated with the disease. His death came just days after three nurses who had worked with him perished.

And two American doctors who were infected with Ebola while treating patients, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, remain “gravely ill” with the disease.

The plight of the doctors has underlined World Medical Association concerns that junior doctors and nurses working at the frontline of efforts to tackle the deadly outbreak are being recklessly exposed to the risk of infection because of inadequate equipment and supervision.

The WMA’s Junior Doctors Network has expressed alarm that many of its members were treating patients without basic protective gear, putting them at great risk of contracting the disease.

The World Health Organisation has recommended that health workers operating in close proximity to patients with Ebola virus should wear a face shield or a medical mask and goggles, a clean, non-sterile long-sleeved gown, and gloves.

But shortcomings in the supply of essential safety equipment for medical staff have been tragically demonstrated by the fact that physicians and other health workers are among those who have contracted the disease.

“Junior doctors are the most vulnerable health care staff, as they are in the first line contact with the infected and their next of kin,” said Dr Nivio Moreira, Chair of the WMA’s Junior Doctors Network. “We are appalled by reports that many junior doctors are not provided with protective equipment essential for dealing with such a deadly disease.”

In addition to the lack of basic protective gear, Dr Moreira said the Association was also concerned that many junior medical staff were working without supervision, despite the fact that dealing with Ebola required a high level of expertise on hand to support less experienced staff.

“These are major threats to all those working in these situations, and go to the heart of safe working conditions,” he said.

While Ebola continues to spread in west and central Africa – 108 cases were reported between 21 and 23 July – Australian health authorities have sought to provide assurances that there was a “very low” chance it could be imported into Australia.

A meeting of the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia has been convened to discuss the Ebola threat, and customs officers and other border protection officials have been alerted to be on the lookout for arriving travellers who may be displaying symptoms of the disease.

But the Health Department said long-standing screening processes in-flight and at the nation’s airports meant there was little chance of someone infected with the disease entering the country undetected.

Fears about the possibility it could be spread by plane passengers were fuelled by revelations that a Liberian Finance Ministry official infected with Ebola flew to Nigeria to attend a conference and died days after arriving in West Africa’s most populace nation.

Adrian Rollins