Canada's response to Ebola outbreak on the ground in Africa woefully lacking , expert warns

Andrew Fazekas
Geekquinox
U.S. Army soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), who are earmarked for the fight against Ebola, put on protective suits during training before their deployment to West Africa, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky October 9, 2014. The U.S. military is ramping up its response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where it has already killed more than 3,400 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. REUTERS/Harrison McClary (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH MILITARY DISASTER)

This week, Canada stepped up Ebola screening efforts at airports to catch any inbound travelers from affected regions of West Africa potentially infected with Ebola. At the same time, the World Health Organization has announced that the current outbreak of the deadly disease is the ”most severe acute health emergency in modern times”.

However some experts are calling the new airport measures, which includes temperature screening, more of an effort to calm the public than to prevent the importation of the virus.

“Airport screening for Ebola is definitely more about quelling the public’s fears than offering any real boost to public health security,” said Steven Hoffman, a global health law expert and Director of Global Strategy Lab at University of Ottawa in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

“Instead of using airport screening to reassure Canadians, I wish the government would focus Canada’s attention and resources on West Africa where the outbreak is out of control and where real action could actually be helpful in protecting Canada’s own health security.”

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Thus far, Canada’s help on the ground in West Africa consists of only two mobile health units - only one of which is currently operating in Kailahun, in eastern Sierra Leone since early September. A second unit is currently being readied to join it soon.

The first unit offers rapid diagnostic support for local health care workers while the second mobile lab will concentrate on work specifically monitoring infection prevention procedures, like hand-washing stations, face masks and disposal sites.

In Hoffman’s opinion, these ‘boots-on-the ground’ actions in the face of a growing epidemic is pitifully inadequate compared to efforts of other much smaller and poorer countries. 

Cuba announced this week it’s sending 450 doctors and nurses to West Africa - which makes Canada’s response, by comparison, lame,” he added.

But the problem goes much deeper, Hoffman says, in that health officials in Canada have really missed the mark in convincing politicians and the public that for us to remain healthy it really depends on the health of the people who are under attack from this virus at ground zero of this epidemic in West Africa.

Global outbreaks like Ebola, he says, simply emphasizes how Canada totally lacks surge capacity, or the ability to act swiftly when faced with a sudden crisis, in its public health infrastructure. 

“Remember, this is the government that just two years ago cut 500 staff from the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Hoffman. 

“This is also the government that has advocated budget cuts and freezes at the World Health Organization which prevented that UN agency from being able to offer effective leadership throughout this outbreak.”

At this point, with the official death toll from Ebola standing at over 4,000, health experts like Hoffman are hoping that politicians won’t take drastic measures to quell growing fears and concerns like imposing flight bans which many think will not only prevent aid from reaching stricken regions, but also destroy local economies and push travel underground.

“The World Bank already estimates this outbreak could cost West African economies up to $33 billion USD and that’s a lot for any nation, especially so for some of the world’s poorest countries,” he explained.

“In any case, determined people find a way to cross-borders, and at least at airports we can track people’s movement.”

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