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02 Mar 2015

A second Australian nurse has been evacuated to the United Kingdom in as many months following a “low-risk clinical incident” at the Australian-operated Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the nurse, who has not been identified, is not exhibiting any symptoms of the deadly disease and is not considered to be at significant risk.

The nurse is the second to have been airlifted to Britain following an incident at the centre, which is being operated under a $20 million contract by Canberra-based Aspen Medical, following the evacuation of a nurse in similar circumstances in mid-January.

Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley told a Senate estimates hearing last week that the woman’s health was “not of concern”, and she would return to Australia as soon as the precautionary 21-day observation period was completed.

Ms Bishop said the evacuations were conducted under the terms of an agreement struck between the Australian Government and its British counterpart prior to the deployment of Australian health workers to the Ebola-hit country.

The Government last year blamed difficulties in putting such evacuation arrangements in place to justify its tardy response to the world’s worst-ever Ebola outbreak.

The AMA was a leading voice in calls from the middle of last year for the Government to join international efforts to combat the spread of the deadly virus, which has so far infected almost 24,000 people and claimed more than 9600 lives (including 490 health workers).

But for months the Abbott Government resisted, initially arguing the country should focus its response on making sure the region was prepared to deal with any local outbreak of the infection, and then stating it would not authorise any deployment of Australian medical staff until robust evacuation arrangements were put in place.

Australia’s official involvement has coincided with a sharp slowdown in the rate of infections.

From a peak of up to 800 new cases being reported each week at the height of the outbreak in the second half of last year, the number of confirmed new infections has dropped below 100 in the countries at the centre of the epidemic, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

In Liberia, where there were 9238 infections and more than 4000 deaths as at 22 February, there were just one confirmed new case in the preceding week, while in Guinea (3155 cases and 2091 deaths) there were 35 confirmed infections. In Sierra Leone, which has been hit hardest by the outbreak (11,301 cases and 3461 deaths), there were 63 new confirmed cases.

In recent weeks the World Health Organisation has become increasingly confident that the worst of the outbreak is over.

But it warned that that a spike in cases in Guinea early last month, and continued widespread transmission in Sierra Leone, “underline the considerable challenges that must still be overcome to get to zero cases”.

The WHO said the infrastructure, systems and personnel needed to end the epidemic “are now in place; responses measures must now be fully implemented”.


Adrian Rollins

Published: 02 Mar 2015