PAUL MURRAY As you just heard in the news headlines, the first Australians to be on their way to Sierra Leone, to join the fight against Ebola are leaving Australia today. The Honourable Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs put out a statement on that just a little while ago. We’ve been trying to get to talk to her about it and the Minister joins us now. Good afternoon Julie.

JULIE BISHOP Hello Paul, how are you?

PAUL MURRAY Well thanks Julie, I’ve got Karalee Katsambanis and Jo McManus with me as well. So who is going and how long are they going for?

JULIE BISHOP Paul, we’ve got 17 Australian health workers departing for West Africa and they will be the first contingent of staff for this Ebola treatment centre that Australia is going to manage and operate in Sierra Leone. The first deployment includes six doctors, and nine nurses, and three environmental health officers, and they’ve all got really extensive experience in disease control. The actual treatment centre is likely to open in mid-December. It's being built by the UK government, the UK Royal Engineers are actually building it and so we’re dependent upon them for the successful completion of the construction and the fit-out, but we need to have our people on the ground being trained, getting to know the area and what it’s all going to actually involve for them.

PAUL MURRAY Julie, you had some real concerns at the start of all of this about the fact of what might happen if an aid worker from Australia got infected. How have you got over that hurdle?

JULIE BISHOP Well that’s absolutely right Paul, our first priority is to ensure the safety and security of the Australian community and we also have to ensure that any Australian volunteers going to West Africa would be able to be evacuated safely and receive high quality health care should they be in the unfortunate situation of contracting the virus. We needed to get a guarantee in place, with a country in Europe, because Australia is too far away to evacuate someone safely. That’s clinically and logistically, it’s too far away and we don’t have the medivac planes that could do it in any event. So we have been negotiating for some time with countries in Europe, with Great Britain, with the United States and eventually we got the guarantee that we were looking for from the UK. And should any Australian health worker, it’s not likely, but should any Australian health worker be exposed to Ebola or contract Ebola, they will be assessed and treated in the first instance at a United Kingdom standard treatment facility, dedicated to health care workers that has been built in Sierra Leone and that will be managed by the UK military.

If the clinical assessment determines that they have to be evacuated from there, they’ve got arrangements in place for them to be treated in the United Kingdom.

JO MCMANUS Julie, Jo McManus here. Do you think that Australia and for that matter the world has been too slow to act on this?

JULIE BISHOP I think it does show the challenges of West Africa, the political instability there, the breakdown in sustainable health systems and because of that the countries involved were not able to respond as quickly as they should have to the outbreak and then we’ve seen some gaps in the response through WHO, through the United Nations, and essentially it has come down to three countries – the United States taking responsibility for Liberia; the United Kingdom taking responsibility for Sierra Leone; and France taking responsibility for Guinea. With their support and their ability to put resources and personnel in place and call upon the international community, I think we’re starting to see a breakthrough. Now there are still new cases being diagnosed, but the rate of new cases is slowing and that’s good news. Of course in Senegal, Nigeria they are saying that they’ve now got it under control.

KARALEE KATSAMBANIS Julie, Karen Katsambanis here. Just wanted to know, you’re sending 17 workers over there, do you have plans to increase the number of workers and is this also part of perhaps a long term strategy that Australia will continue to pursue, because Ebola has been around for many years. How are we going to all get on top of it?

JULIE BISHOP Well you’re absolutely right, there have been outbreaks in the past and they have been brought under control. This time because of the state of the health system in each of the countries affected, it has been worse than previously. The 100 bed facility is going to commence operations with a smaller number of beds and then it will scale up to capacity and that’s according to best practice. This means that proper safety practices will be in place and section control procedures will be effective.

We’ve got the facility located at Hastings Airfield, it’s close to Freetown, the capital Sierra Leone. This location has an urban population apparently a high and growing rate of Ebola transmission and therefore a very high demand for treatment there. The Australian treatment facility will be saving lives. We are also bringing on 200 Sierra Leone staff and they have already commenced training in Sierra Leone in accordance with WHO, the World Health Organisation, standards.

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