Australia will not send health workers to Ebola outbreak zones until their welfare can be guaranteed.
Despite talks with European nations, the UK and the US, Australia has been unable to shore up a treatment or evacuation plan for its personnel should they be sent to west Africa, the minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, says.
“I do not have in place a guarantee that should an Australian health worker – sent there by the Australian government – contract Ebola, they would be able to be transported or treated in a hospital either in the region or in Europe,” she told reporters in Launceston on Saturday.
“And until I have that in place we will not be sending Australian health workers.”
The minister presumed Australian health workers travelling privately to the outbreak region would be covered by a credible plan provided by their affiliate organisation.
The Australian government has contributed $18m for equipment and supplies in west Africa since the Ebola outbreak.
Bishop’s comments follow an Ebola scare in Queensland where Cairns nurse Sue Ellen Kovack, 57, returned from working in Sierra Leone, with symptoms including a fever.
Initial tests cleared Kovack of Ebola but she remains in isolation in hospital and will have a second round of tests on Sunday.
She was tested for the virus on Thursday after developing a low-grade fever upon her return to Australia after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. She was held in isolation at Cairns hospital and her blood samples were flown to Brisbane for testing.
Queensland’s chief health officer, Jeannette Young, confirmed on Friday morning that the initial tests had returned a negative result. Kovack will continue to be held in hospital for at least 24 hours. She will be tested again at the weekend.
“This is a necessary precaution given the patient has been to west Africa and has had a fever within the incubation period of 21 days,” Young said. “For the sake of her health and to follow due diligence, we want to be sure she is clear of Ebola virus disease as well as any other disease.”
Young said even if Kovack had tested positive for Ebola the wider community had not been at risk. Kovack had been held in home isolation since her return from Sierra Leone on Tuesday and had not developed the symptoms of Ebola which make it contagious, such as vomiting and diarrhoea.
Health minister Peter Dutton said 11 people across Australia had been tested for Ebola and all had returned negative results as he warned against community panic.
“I want people to put things in perspective here, it’s not spread by people coughing … the chances of it being spread here are next to nil. We have the ability to deal with people and rapidly test,” he told reporters in Melbourne.
Dutton said he was “very satisfied” with the advice the government had received from Young, other health officials and immigration officials about how to best handle people coming back to Australia from Ebola-affected countries.
He dismissed independent MP Bob Katter’s comments that Australians should be held in official isolation for three weeks and humanitarian workers were putting all of Australia at risk.
“I’m happy for Mr Katter to be briefed and informed on these matters before he makes any further public comment so he’s properly informed about Ebola and [the] risk that it poses,” he said.
He said Kovack’s initial negative result was a “huge relief” for her, as well as the government.
Queensland will now hold health workers returning from west Africa in Brisbane, rather than their own homes in other parts of the state, so treatment can be swift if they are diagnosed with the virus, the state’s health minister Lawrence Springborg said.
“In the case of this nurse, she has been extremely responsible and followed all precautionary guidelines since she has returned from treating sick people in Africa,” he said.
“We’re encouraged this … first test of this nurse has shown this is a negative result [but] there is an incubation period that goes for up to 21 days.”
Young also dismissed Katter’s concerns, defending Australian health workers who have gone to west Africa to treat people with the virus.
“I have every confidence that her and other people like her who have gone over to west Africa to give of their skills, which I admire tremendously, to do what they’ve done will not put any Australian at harm. They are genuine, true, fantastic health professionals who are practising their profession so I’m not concerned by it,” she said.
The head of the Australian Red Cross international program, Peter Walton, said Kovack had an “anxious wait” on Friday morning but was in good spirits while in isolation at Cairns hospital. He said she was aware of the intense media speculation and the discussion her case had caused in the wider community, including questions about whether Australian aid workers should be travelling to west Africa.
“If we don’t make a contribution, the risk of this expanding and becoming much more than a regional concern is absolutely going to be the case,” he told ABC News 24. “So we should be doing more. And I think Australian aid workers like Sue Ellen are incredibly brave being at the frontline.”
Walton said Kovack was a clinical nurse who had worked in a Red Cross Ebola treatment centre about 180km from Freetown.
The Australian government has resisted calls to send health professionals to west Africa to help with the epidemic.
“The worst-case scenarios are that it’s going to be keep doubling every three weeks [and] there will be over 1.4m people affected,” Walton said. “That is the worst-case scenario but more needs to be done. We certainly hope that won’t be the case.”
Queensland’s premier, Campbell Newman, cautiously welcomed the news of Kovack’s initial negative result. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed for the patient involved,” he told reporters in Canberra, where he has travelled for a Council of Australian Governments meeting.
Almost 4,000 people have died from Ebola in west Africa and Kovack was one of several Australians who have travelled to the region to help treat patients there.
A doctor is in home isolation in south Brisbane after returning from treating Ebola patients overseas.