WATCH: A team of Canadian medical experts has left Sierra Leone, because a doctor working alongside them tested positive for the Ebola virus. Robin Gill reports.
TORONTO – Canada is in the process of evacuating its three-member mobile laboratory team from Sierra Leone over concerns for the safety of the scientists as the World Health Organization investigates how an African doctor who worked at the same field unit as the Canadians contracted Ebola.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said late Tuesday that the team is being recalled to Canada after people at the hotel complex where they were staying were diagnosed with Ebola. The agency said the Canadians do not appear to be sick but will be in voluntary isolation both on their trip home and after they return to the country.
The WHO’s director of communications, Christy Feig, said the organization is investigating how the doctor, a Senegalese epidemiologist, became infected with the virus. The unit where he and the Canadians were working did not treat patients; it was a support operation for a nearby treatment centre operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres.
“It could have been a straightforward thing; he was exposed in an accident with an infected patient, it could have been that simple,” Feig said Wednesday in an interview from Liberia.
“But it also is a little unusual so we want to give it a close look so we can make sure there’s not something about the set up there that’s putting more people at risk.”
The Senegalese doctor has been evacuated to Hamburg, Germany for care. He is the first person working on an Ebola outbreak through the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network to have contracted the disease.
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The Canadian team was also in Sierra Leone under the aegis of the outbreak response network, which is known by the acronym GOARN.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced it was temporarily removing its staff from the Kailahun operation, sending them to Freetown.
In addition to the lab team, that unit did tracing of contacts of known cases and employed social mobilizers to educate people on the symptoms of Ebola and the importance of early diagnosis and treatment.
Feig did not know how Canada planned to get the three scientists home.
The WHO has said that people who are considered contacts of a confirmed case should not travel on commercial flights until it is clear they are disease free. The incubation period for Ebola – the time from exposure to onset of symptoms – ranges from two to 21 days.
The Public Health Agency’s statement did not elaborate on why the federal government felt the situation at Kailahun was significant enough to required that the scientists be brought back to Canada.
The agency did say the Canadians had no contact with the sick individuals at the hotel and are not themselves showing symptoms.
“The risk that any of the three individuals is infected is very low,” the statement said.
The Public Health Agency said the federal government was in the process of finalizing the travel arrangements for the scientists, but gave no indication of when the three would depart from Sierra Leone or how they would be brought back to Canada.
Earlier this week a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development said the federal government has been working on plans to repatriate Canadians from the Ebola zone of West Africa, in case the need arose.
“Considerable planning has been undertaken in the event that a Canadian becomes sick abroad and asks for assistance with repatriation,” spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon said in an emailed response to questions.
“DFATD has identified commercial medical air evacuation companies to fly a sick person home to Canada and has been in discussion with provincial health ministries about where a possible patients could safely receive care.”
Fenelon said Canada has been working with international partners, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) on how best to address the Ebola situation.
“We are seeking to ensure that the global Ebola strategy (including factors such as medevac issues) are handled in as co-ordinated and effective a manner as possible, so as to provide clarity regarding options should health-care workers become infected in the course of their duties.”
A growing number of airlines have suspended flights to the countries battling the outbreak – Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The UN and the WHO have said the scarcity of flights into the countries is impeding their ability to ramp up the response to the outbreak and is hindering the flow of medical equipment and other essential aid.
Feig said a new complement of WHO staff is waiting to be deployed to Kailahun, but will not be sent until the investigation into the infection is completed. It said it would be looking at the living arrangements of all the staff at Kailahun as part of the investigation.
In announcing the decision to temporarily withdraw from Kailahun, the WHO said staff at the treatment centre were exhausted and dispirited and need a break. It did not make reference to the departure of the Canadians or the fact that people at their hotel were infected with the virus.
“This was the responsible thing to do. The field team has been through a traumatic time through this incident,” Dr. Daniel Kertesz, the WHO representative in Sierra Leone, said in a statement.
“They are exhausted from many weeks of heroic work, helping patients infected with Ebola. When you add a stressor like this, the risk of accidents increases.”
The WHO said the Kailahun post will be restaffed after the work is done. And the Public Health Agency said Canada will send another lab team to Sierra Leone once appropriate measures have been taken to ensure a safe environment.
The WHO has not issued revised case numbers for nearly a week and has repeatedly said its numbers are likely underestimates of the scale of the outbreak.
Its last report said there have been more than 2,600 infections and 1,400 deaths, making this the largest Ebola outbreak on record.