Australia’s neighbours ill-prepared for Ebola outbreak: expert

By Nadia Daly

Poorer nations near Australia were ill-prepared to deal with an Ebola outbreak if the deadly virus were to reach the Asia-Pacific, an infectious disease expert is warning.

Michael Toole, deputy director of the Burnet Institute, said Australia’s closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, was battling some of the same public health problems as Ebola-hit Liberia.

“Even though it’s a wealthier country than Liberia, the health system hasn’t kept up with economic growth over the last decade,” he said.

“Fewer people in Papua New Guinea are accessing health services and centres than was the case a decade ago.

“There’s a severe shortage of skilled health workforce… on six doctors for every 100,000 [people].”

Professor Toole welcomed Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s announcement that Australia would help countries in the region to prepare for the possibility of an Ebola outbreak.

“I think we have to assume it could happen and be prepared for that,” he said.

However, he said, the weak health systems of PNG and East Timor would struggle to deal with an Ebola epidemic and preventative measures needed to be taken immediately.

“Isolation and infection control procedures are not up to standard, so we would expect that that situation is not good if there were to be other cases or more of Ebola,” he said.

“And outside assistance would probably be necessary.”

But Professor Toole said there was a higher risk of Ebola coming into Australia direct for East Africa rather than through a neighbouring country.

“I would think there would be more travellers from that direction, so certainly Australian airports need very good procedures to screen people when they arrive,” he said.

Risk of Ebola entering Australia low

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) says the chances of Ebola coming to Australia are low, however.

AMA president Brian Owler said even if the virus did arrive, Australia was well prepared.

There were facilities to look after identified cases in each capital city and the standard of equipment and staff was high, he added.

“Of course we have emergency department workers where cases might first present, such as happened in the United States, and even in general practice people need to know what the right thing to do is,” he said.

As an added measure, Australia had been screening passengers returning from West Africa since early August, Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Baggoley said.

“People returning from Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been taken aside from passport control,” he said.

“Biosecurity staff ask whether they have been in contact with Ebola patients, whether they attended funerals, or whether they have had a fever in the last 24 hours.”