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Government faces widespread criticism of Ebola response

It’s rare for the Australian Medical Association, the Public Health Association and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation to be singing from the same hymn sheet.  But their collective criticisms of the Government’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have barely a discordant note. 

Over the past two weeks, these organisations (and others within the health sector) have been strongly critical of the Abbot Government’s repeated refusal to provide additional support to combat the epidemic, despite direct requests from both the UK and USA Governments.  Their views are echoed by those of the community, according to a Roy Morgan poll showing that 70 per cent of Australians support sending nurses and doctors to West Africa to assist in the epidemic.

AMA President Dr Brian Owler has described Australia’s response to Ebola as a ‘shambles’ and has called on the Government to develop and announce a plan to help deal with the crisis.  He questioned the Government’s announcement that ‘6 health care workers have been trained to go to west Africa and do “dangerous work” with Ebola patients’ saying that even the Chief Medical Officer doesn’t know who the people are, what sort of training they’ve had and whether they’re properly prepared. “”Who are these people? If anything is going to be irresponsible it would be a last-minute announcement about people who are ill-equipped or ill-trained to go and do this dangerous work.” Dr Owler said.

Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) CEO  Michael Moore has also been strongly critical of the Government’s lack of response calling on it to ‘act quickly and comprehensively on the Ebola outbreak by assisting with international efforts.’  According to him “The response of the Australian government should incorporate an immediate action, a short term, intermediate and long-term strategy for dealing with the crisis in West Africa.  It requires parallel rather than an “either – or” approach.

“Australia should delay no longer in taking action in West Africa.  The US and UK have responded strongly.  Even Cuba has sent large numbers in support and even Ethiopia, on the far side of Africa from the crisis has committed 400 health professionals.  The PHAA reiterates its call, supported by over 100 health professors two weeks ago for the government: provide appropriate troops and equipment and other logistical support; deploy our Australian Medical Assistance Teams; assemble and support appropriately qualified health professionals and other skilled civilians who are ready and waiting to help; and make a significant financial contribution.   

Mr Moore added, “Australia should also immediately remove the unscientific and inappropriate restriction on people from West Africa entering our country.  We need a sensible, scientific response rather than an inappropriate and emotional draconian measure that is an affront to countries already wrestling with a crisis”.

The PHAA has outlined recommended short, medium and long term responses which would assist African countries in fighting the Ebola outbreak and minimise the risks of the disease spreading to Australia.

A similar approach is supported by the ANMF which conducted a survey of its members and found  that more than 350 nurses and midwives, out of 1375 respondents to the online poll conducted over five days, would volunteer to assist in the provision of medical care and work to halt the spread of the outbreak. The survey also found that almost 90 per cent of respondents want the government to guarantee the safe return of volunteers and boost the Ebola response.

ANMF federal secretary Lee Thomas said the union’s poll results are proof that hundreds of nurses and midwives are ready and willing to assist with Ebola if the government coordinates the effort.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response from our members, who continue to be deeply concerned by the government’s reluctance to join the international effort to fight what is rapidly becoming a devastating humanitarian crisis,” she said.   “Our members feel a strong obligation, as health care professionals, to care for people with all types of illnesses regardless of their circumstances or where they are located.

“As such, they are deeply disappointed by the government’s lack of response to calls for assistance from their own health experts and recently from other countries which have been leading the fight to control the outbreak.  Our members, who are experts in the field, have clearly told us that acting now to control the outbreak at the source is the only effective way to deal with the Ebola crisis,” Ms Thomas said.  They are ready now to use their skills and knowledge to assist in the fight if the government coordinates the effort and guarantees them support.”

Ms Thomas said it’s vital the government avoids any further delays.

In response to this criticism the Government has repeatedly defended its response with Health Minister Peter Dutton saying that Australia had “provided a response better than many nations across Europe”.  He said negotiations were progressing with Britain, but the Australian government “needs to be sure of those arrangements before any decision is made about sending health workers”. He also stated that there is no question that Australia would send military personnel, Mr Dutton said, but only volunteers

With stakeholder groups, the Opposition and the Greens continuing to put pressure on the Government this issue is unlikely to go away.  Unless the Government changes its position, it risks overshadowing the G20 meeting next month in Brisbane with Chief executive of Save the Children Fund Paul Ronalds calling for the meeting to agree on a “down payment for the world’s poor and include serious commitments to tackling Ebola”.  

Anyone wanting to contribute to the global fight against Ebola can donate to the Australian Red Cross Ebola Outbreak 2014 Appeal online or by calling 1800 811 700.

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