Ebola doctors, nurses no longer recruited for West Africa

A Canadian recruitment drive for health workers to help battle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been halted for now, as the number of new cases has slowed over the past two months.

Number of new cases drops, focus shifts from emergency to recovery

Members of the Canadian Red Cross team suit up at a treatment facility in Sierra Leone in February. A Canadian recruitment drive for medical personnel to go to West Africa has been halted as the number of new Ebola cases there slows. (Melissa Langevin)

A national recruitment drive for health-care workers to help with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been halted for now as the number of new cases of the disease is dropping.

The Canadian Red Cross says the focus is shifting from an emergency response to recovery.

Almost 900 Canadians responded to a recruitment drive last fall by the federal government and the Red Cross.

Since then, there have been fewer than 400 new cases of Ebola in the region. Beds in West African treatment centres are empty, with many of those centres expected to close by May or June.

Stephane Michaud, who runs the emergency response operations for the Canadian Red Cross, says all of this means his organization and the government are no longer running "an all-out recruitment campaign."

"Doctors, nurses and the hospital support staff are still needed, but in much smaller numbers than they were before," Michaud told CBC News.

Countries shift response

In February, Canada brought back one of its three mobile labs from the Kailahun district in Sierra Leone. The lab had been based there since June 2014, staffed with a rotating team of scientists who provided rapid diagnostic testing for Ebola.

A medical worker is dressed in protective gear at an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone. Canada is bringing home the second of three mobile labs it sent to the region to help combat the disease. (Melissa Langevin)

At the outset, the lab was testing 150 patients a week. By February there had been no new cases of Ebola in the district for more than 42 days.

Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's chief public health officer, said a second mobile lab is on its way back to Canada and should arrive by spring. But he said Canada is not walking away from West Africa.

Instead, he said, the federal government is about to send a team of five new experts into the field for four to eight weeks.

"What we're sending is epidemiologists, border health specialists and some emergency management skills, and in particular we've been asked to send French-speaking experts in those areas," Taylor told CBC News.

Canada also has about 40 military personnel at a British-run Kerry Town Treatment Unit in Sierra Leona. That mission is expected to last until June.

Michaud warned the danger now is complacency.

"Now is not the time to abandon the affected countries. There's signs in the environment that are worrying, that many donors are walking away saying, 'Well, the worst of the crisis is over,' so the funding is drying up," Michaud said.

"The simple message is, let's accompany these countries through their recovery. They will need help rebuilding the health-care infrastructure," he added.

Impact on health-care system

Michaud pointed out that nearly 10,000 people have died from Ebola, including many health-care workers.

On top of that, two parallel health-care systems have evolved in West Africa, he said.

"One for normal pre-Ebola injuries such as surgeries, crushed limbs, C-sections. And also a completely parallel healthcare system for anything that may or may not be Ebola. And there's multiple reasons for this. But, simply, patients would be reluctant to go to a hospital that also treats Ebola patients," Michaud explained.

He said the Red Cross is recruiting people to help rebuild the health-care system, work with communities dealing with the grief of losing so many people and promote food security.

Taylor said that while the outbreak is far from over, lessons have already been learned.

A map from the World Health Organization shows the number of days since the last confirmed cases of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, by district, as of late February. (World Health Organization)

For example, he said, the federal government is still doing mock joint exercises with provinces to prepare for a possible case of Ebola in Canada. An exercise was held just yesterday in Halifax.

"Our thinking is perhaps we need to be doing these on a regular basis so we do these table-top exercises more frequently with the provinces and territories."

He added the work done to fight this outbreak will help in future ones as well, especially with the new vaccines and medical treatments.

"We have now moved forward very quickly with vaccines and treatments. And these new vaccines and treatments will be useful for other related diseases, other hemorrhagic fevers for example, and we're going to see a totally different response in the future which this one has helped drive."