Tracey-Lee Osling, Nurse Unit Manager of Westmead Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, prepares protective equipment for the Ultra Isolation Rooms, designed specifically to manage patients with highly infectious diseases. Photo: NSW Health/Carlos FurtadoSydney’s Westmead Hospital has been conducting drills to prepare for a potential outbreak of Ebola, while the nation’s health departments say they are well equipped to deal with possible cases of the deadly virus.
The federal health department says the risk of an outbreak in Australia remains very low, and “our infection control mechanisms in hospitals are first rate”.
Staff at Westmead Hospital have done live training exercises and information about how to manage suspected cases has been sent to emergency departments, clinicians, GPs and diagnostic laboratories across the state.
Westmead Hospital is the designated hospital for the treatment of Ebola in NSW because it is equipped with isolation rooms and a highly secure laboratory, where doctors can test for the virus.
The isolation areas have low air pressure to stop air flowing outside, as well as a double air lock. Staff who would care for Ebola patients have received special training.
“While Ebola is a very serious disease, it is not highly contagious. Ebola is not like influenza. It is not caught through coughing or sneezing. It is only caught through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or animal,” said Vicky Sheppeard, director of the NSW Health communicable diseases branch.
Ebola has killed more than 3400 people mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Recent UNICEF figures estimated at least 3700 children in those countries have lost one or both parents, and many have been shunned by relatives who fear being infected.
Sierra Leone recorded 121 deaths in one of the single deadliest days since the disease appeared there more than four months ago, government health statistics showed on Sunday.
A Spanish nurse is the first person to contract the virus outside of west Africa, after treating an infected priest repatriated to Madrid. A Liberian man with the virus is in hospital in Dallas after travelling to the US from the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
In Australia, Customs and Border Protection and Department of Agriculture biosecurity officers are alert to the possibility of Ebola when identifying sick passengers.
Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne, of the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, said Australia’s preparedness goes back to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, when many countries bolstered their plans for emerging infections.
An Ebola outbreak in Australia remains a low possibility in part because there are no direct flights from west Africa, he said.
“The UK is at high risk and that’s simply because of the traditional relationship the UK has with Sierra Leone. In the same way, we weren’t really surprised that the first case exported was Liberia through the US because they have traditional relationships,” Dr Hill-Cawthorne said.
“Australia doesn’t really have traditional relationships with west African countries. Overall, Australia is at pretty low risk.”
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