Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Ebola: It is time for Australia to act

Ebola: It is time for Australia to act

By Catherine King MP, Federal Shadow Minister For Health and the Member for Ballarat.

The Ebola crisis is no longer a humanitarian crisis for West Africa; it now poses a direct threat to world economic growth and if not contained, will spread well beyond the borders of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Failure to act now will have incredibly serious consequences for the global community, and the Ebola cases in the US and Spain show that even countries with the most highly developed health and border protection systems are no longer immune.

As infectious diseases expert Dr Alexander van Tulleken has made clear, 'The only way to prevent this happening again is to roll back this disease in West Africa, otherwise it's not just going to be happening here it's going to be happening all over the world.'

That is why Labor has for weeks now been warning that the rapidly escalating situation demands Australia go further and support specialised personnel who wish to help fight the spread of Ebola.

This epidemic is now posing a direct threat to nations well beyond the borders of the three countries directly affected, and the window to tackle this crisis is fast closing. Without urgent action by countries like Australia, which have the people and expertise to fight the disease, the opportunity to bring the Ebola epidemic under control may be lost forever. [fold]

Of the around 8000 Ebola cases so far, more than 4000 people have died, and the disease is spreading exponentially. At the current rate, it's predicted that 21,000 people will be infected by the end of this month. Much more alarmingly, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns there could be a million infections by January without urgent action. 

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has bluntly warned such an outbreak would have economic and security consequences for the entire world: 'The development of the Ebola virus. if it is not contained, if all the players that talk about it don't actually do something about it to try to stop it, contain it and help those three countries deal with it, it might develop into something that would be a very serious concern and could cause significant risks.'

Many countries are starting to heed that call. President Obama has announced the US is sending 3000 troops to build 17 health facilities of 100 beds each and train 500 health workers per week. Cuba is sending a 165-strong medical brigade, China a medical team of 59 people and Britain is sending troops to set up hospitals in Sierra Leone.

But Australia right now must be counted as being among those that could and should be doing more. In September we joined a record 131 countries in co-sponsoring a unanimous UN Security Council resolution calling on all nations to 'facilitate the delivery of assistance, including qualified, specialized and trained personnel and supplies, in response to the Ebola outbreak'. But to date we have not provided that support directly.

Australian doctors and nurses have already shown their commitment and bravery by volunteering in West Africa independently, and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) says more will join them if they receive government support. Labor endorses the AMA's call for Australia to support the recruitment and deployment of volunteer doctors and other health professionals to West Africa, and to provide ongoing practical support such as protective and medical equipment and supplies, transport and accommodation. 

As the AMA notes, the Australian Government has well trained Australian Medical Assistance Teams that include doctors, nurses, paramedics, fire fighters and allied health staff that can rapidly respond to crises like the Ebola virus. Two of these teams were rapidly, and safely deployed to the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Hainan, where they did magnificent work caring for thousands of victims of that catastrophe.

Australia is a prosperous and generous nation and our government should do all it can to assist. Australia's medical professionals are rightly regarded as among the world's best and brightest, and if we act now, we have a chance to join with other nations to bring this epidemic under control and spare thousands of lives. If we fail, the ability to control this epidemic will be lost, and the world will face a health crisis the UN warns poses a threat to world peace and international security.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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