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Millions at risk unless Ebola outbreak brought under control

30 Sep 2014

Infectious disease experts have warned almost 1.5 million may be infected with Ebola by early next year unless the international community immediately ramps up its effort to help bring the world’s worst ever outbreak of the deadly disease under control.

As AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler called on the Federal Government to work with other nations to make arrangements to evacuate Australian doctors and other health workers who may contract Ebola while helping to treat people in West Africa, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released estimates that there could be as many as 21,000 cases by the end of September, and up to 1.4 million in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone by the end of January 2015.

“If conditions remain unchanged, the situation will rapidly become much worse,” the CDC said. “Cases in Liberia are currently doubling every 15 to 20 days, and those in Sierra Leone and Guinea are doubling every 30 to 40 days.”

The World Health Organisation has described the worsening crisis as “unparalleled in modern times”, and warned Ebola could become endemic to the region.

Global attention is finally swinging on to the epidemic.

The UN Security Council has passed a resolution declaring the outbreak to be a threat to international peace and security – only the second such declaration it has made about a health issue.

The CDC reported that, as of 25 September, there had been 6263 cases – 3487 of which had been laboratory-confirmed – resulting in 2917 deaths.

Alarmingly, both the WHO and the CDC believe the extent of the outbreak is being under-reported, and the CDC has estimated there could be as many as 21,000 cases by the end of September.

In its response, the US has despatched 3000 troops to Liberia to build 17 Ebola treatment units, provide logistical and engineering support for health teams, and to establish facilities to train up to 500 health workers a week to combat the disease. It has so far committed $US175 million to the effort.

The British Government has pledged support for 700 treatment beds in Sierra Leone, while the EU is providing 150 million Euros and mobile laboratories and the World Bank has committed $US105 million. In addition, Cuba has deployed 165 health workers to the affected region, and China has sent 174 medical personnel.

So far, Australia has committed $8 million, including $2.5 million to each of the WHO and Medicins Sans Frontieres.

But A/Professor Owler said much more was needed, both from Australia and the international community.

“What we're witnessing is an evolving humanitarian tragedy of unprecedented proportions,” he told ABC News Radio. “This is the sort of thing of Rwandan proportions - different reason, obviously, but you can see this evolving.”

The AMA President said the Government had demonstrated through its actions in northern Iraq its ability and willingness to provide and deploy resources far away from Australia, and a similar effort needed to be made to help the crisis in West Africa.

“What we need to see is the same sort of commitment from the international community, including Australia, to actually make sure that we provide humanitarian assistance, not just to people in Iraq, but to people in West Africa as well,” A/Professor Owler said. “Their lives are just as important.

“While it might be okay to send arms to Iraq, we need to make sure we send arms and legs to actually provide treatment for the people of West Africa.”

He said Australia needed to provide, equip and staff mobile hospitals and treatment centres, as well as support the work of other organisation on the ground, such as the Red Cross and MSF.

A/Professor Owler said Australian doctors and nurses were already on the ground in the affected countries, and more were willing to volunteer to help combat the outbreak, but the country needed to provide them with the resources and support they needed, including devising arrangements for their evacuation in case of infection with the deadly virus.

Evacuation direct to Australia is considered nigh on impossible, given the 30-hour flight time involved and the complexity of arrangements that would be required to bring it about, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has warned any health workers travelling to the region that the Government did not have the capacity to evacuate them in case of infection.

But A/Professor Owler said the Government should negotiate evacuation arrangements with other countries that are also sending health workers.

“What we would like to see is the Government coming to some arrangement with its so-called allies that it's working with in other forums, such as the UK and the US and France, to actually have a way of treating those health care workers if the worst should happen and they became infected,” he said.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 30 Sep 2014