Israel Wants to Help Ebola-stricken Nations - but Doesn't Know How

Decision to set up Israeli field hospital nixed due to health concerns, but sending 'only equipment' is worthless, says expert.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Young patients discharged from an Ebola clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, last month.
Young patients discharged from an Ebola clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, last month. Credit: Reuters
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel wants to step up its effort to help Ebola-stricken countries in Africa, but is torn about how to do so. The Foreign Ministry would like to provide the most effective assistance possible, but is concerned about endangering Israeli medical and logistical personnel, say sources.

Last week the Foreign Ministry announced Israel would send three mobile emergency clinics “to areas in West Africa where there is a danger of being infected by Ebola.” The clinics, which are manufactured in Israel, were constructed according to World Health Organization standards for treating the disease. Israel is to send a team of medical experts to instruct the locals how to operate the clinic and its equipment in the field. The team will also be involved in teaching how to prevent the spread of the disease and in increasing awareness among high-risk populations.

But according to sources involved, the initial intention of the ministry, which was not emphasized in the announcement, was to provide assistance in neighboring African countries which have not been hard hit by Ebola. The ministry is now examining the possibility of sending aid to the most affected countries.

Defense Ministry vetoed field hospital

“The initial decision to set up a field hospital was vetoed by the Defense Ministry, which fears that members of the medical team would be harmed,” explains Prof. Eli Schwartz, director of the Center for Geographic Medicine at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, who also serves as an adviser to the Foreign Ministry on the subject.

Medecins Sans Frontieres prepares isolation and treatment areas for its Ebola, hemorrhagic fever operations, in Gueckedou, Guinea.Credit: AP

“Afterwards the Foreign Ministry had the idea of sending clinics and personnel to neighboring countries in order to treat those who are or may be ill, who are trickling into those countries, but that doesn’t help much,” notes Schwartz.

The Ministry is now considering sending medical teams into the affected countries, but rather than deploying them in a field hospital, they would be sent to a medical facility that includes 20 beds and a limited staff. Another possibility is having Israeli doctors join existing clinics run by other aid organizations.

“That means actually entering the lions’ den, and it’s still not clear how that should be done. To send only equipment is worthless; what they lack now is manpower,” says Schwartz.

Since the most recent outbreak of the plague over 200 medical personnel who came into daily contact with patients have died, and about 400 have been infected. In addition, many are suffering from mental and physical burnout. Despite the huge resources being invested in combating Ebola, there is a shortage of manpower.

Forming an Israeli delegation of medical personnel, even one that joins a hospital or an existing clinic, is complicated. Because of the virulent nature of the disease, such a delegation faces entirely different challenges than the medical assistance or disaster-area aid which Israeli teams have provided in the past.

The medical teams and members of the delegation will be required to undergo a two-week training period, after which they will be sent for up to six weeks to African countries – a period of time defined by the organizations in order not to overburden the medical teams. Upon their return to Israel the doctors will not be able to resume work immediately and will have to be in isolation for three weeks in order to ensure that they have not caught the virus.

Not only doctors, but guards needed

In the most affected countries, the challenge is more than medical. Because of spreading panic, chaos and eruptions of violence among the local population, there are also logistic and security problems that must be addressed when sending out a medical team.

“It must be run like a military operation,” says Prof. Leslie Lobel, a researcher and expert on Ebola from Ben Gurion-University of the Negev, who has spent long periods in the countries most affected. “In the places where the Israeli delegations go the situation is not good, and they have to be careful and to avoid all kinds of dangers,” says Lobel.

“In terms of personal security, this is an environment that was not safe even before the Ebola outbreak. Today it’s becoming more hostile as people become more desperate. Teams who come to work in those countries undergo preliminary training and have means of defending themselves, but it makes no difference how much you train beforehand, in the end you encounter new and unknown things, and therefore the nature of the work requires full coordination like that of special military forces with a war room,” he says.

While Israel has yet to decide on the scope of assistance it will offer, Israeli doctors have expressed considerable willingness to volunteer for a mission in Ebola-stricken countries — despite the risks. “If there’s a decision to send an Israeli delegation, we as the center for tropical medicine will of course mobilize to help,” says Schwartz.

Israeli doctors say they're ready to volunteer

At a recent conference on tropical diseases Schwartz asked participating doctors to write anonymously whether they would be willing to take part in the mission. “To my surprise, 60 percent of the doctors at the conference answered in the affirmative. Of course there could be a gap between that and actually going out into the field, and the doctors’ families certainly have something to say about it, but apparently there is a willingness,” he says.

Lobel believes that it is very important for an Israeli delegation to go to the heart of the areas suffering from Ebola. “The size of the delegation is less important. What’s important is the representation. Every country has to contribute and to help with the Ebola crisis in Africa. It will also contribute to our experience in dealing with Ebola, because you can never really know whether we will have to deal with the disease here too. It’s also good for the image of our country,” he adds.

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