AUSTRALIA has agreed to support a 240-strong medical team to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa after striking a deal on medical evacuations. The assistance will take the form of funding for a 100-bed field hospital in Sierra Leone, staffed by up to 240 volunteer health workers, including an unknown number of Australians. Prime Minister Tony Abbott today announced a $20 million commitment to the mission, which will be managed at “arm’s length” through a private operator, Aspen Medical. Mr Abbott said it was anticipated that Canberra-based Aspen would have some staff on the ground in Sierra Leone within days. The British-built Ebola treatment centre would have 240 staff, he said. “Most will be locally engaged, and it is likely some of them will be Australian.” Aspen Medical’s website was already advertising for medical personnel this afternoon.
Julie Lambert, Medical Observer, 5 November 2014
After my last blog, it was encouraging to read this article recently in the medical press. It was published 10 days ago and how far the process has come since then I don’t know, but it responds to an urgent need, and it looks as though Aspen Medical is not wasting time. I worked for Aspen briefly some years ago, in Australia. Since Aspen provides medical services to the Australian Armed Forces, the company was my employer when I did a four week locum job at the Cairns naval base in tropical North Queensland. My brief contact with the organisation was positive. It is encouraging to see that they are willing use their expertise and experience with medicine in remote locations to coordinate the deployment of volunteers as well as their own staff. They are certainly the right people for the job in Sierra Leone from an Australian perspective and will hopefully be able to provide a quality service to the people of West Africa at the same time as keeping their own people as safe and secure as possible. Maintaining the health of people (usually military) in remote locations is their specialty.
It is heartbreaking to read the reports of the Ebola epidemic coming out of Sierra Leone and West Africa. Our time with Mercy Ships back in 2001-2003 gave us some insight into just how much suffering has afflicted the people of that part of the world, and though our contact was fairly superficial we still feel some kind of connection to West Africa. When we arrived in Freetown at the end of 2001 on board the Anastasis the country was coming out of a decade of civil war. The war ravaged city bore the marks of a suffering people. UN vehicles were a common sight, the sound of helicopters overhead frequently broke through the buzz of the city streets. We were moored alongside a British ship, a fleet auxiliary vessel that served as a dormitory for British soldiers. Despite all this and the fact that most of our work was on board our hospital ship, we had frequent opportunities to disembark during our 3-month stay, and get to know the city and its beautiful surroundings, not least some of the wonderful beaches.
Now, after only a decade of relative peace, Sierra Leone is once again plunged into chaotic upheaval, but this time the enemy is not armed conflict but infectious disease. Sadly, Mercy Ships has neither the experience or the expertise required to respond to this kind of medical emergency, and has been forced to revise its planned outreach this year to Guinea, sailing instead to Madagascar. Other organisations have thankfully made a huge impact, notably Medicins sans Frontiéres which has, as usual, provided an astounding contribution, though they too have been quickly swamped by the need. It is encouraging to see governments around the world responding at last, even if slowly.
Meanwhile, the local health services are doing their best in an overwhelming situation. One inspiring example for me has been Dr Sandra Lako, another ex-Mercy Ships doctor, who has made Sierra Leone her home, working now as a medical coordinator for the Welbodi Partnership. Freetown is perhaps not the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone but even there cases turn up regularly, and fear runs rife in the community, as Sandra’s blog bears witness to.
It is hard to know how to respond for those of us who for one reason or another can’t go to Africa to help in the response to this crisis. We can give our money, we can be interested by reading the updates that appear in the press, we can raise awareness by simply talking about the issue in our workplaces and homes, and we can pray. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea… they are all places of great beauty and wonderful people, but just now places of fear and suffering. How can we help?