Defence Forces to volunteer for ebola work in Africa

Defence Forces personnel are to help with the "harrowing work" in ebola-hit countries of West Africa including the collection and burial of bodies and the establishment of healthcare facilities in remote areas.

Defence Minister Simon Coveney has told the Cabinet that a handful of troops will be sent to help with the fight to contain the spread of the disease in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea where the deadly disease is spreading daily.

However, he said there was no guarantee that these, or Irish aid workers in those countries, would be brought home if they contracted the virus.

“We have basic agreements in place, but only within reason”, he said adding that they may have to remain in their locations on medical advice.

“We’ll have to treat them on a case-by-case basis. But certainly we are doing everything we can to makes sure facilities are in place by working with our European partners to ensure that if a person needs to be medically evacuated, that we can within reason do that.

“It is not always that simple I’m afraid in the complexity of working in the conditions that are currently there.”

The Government has already committed about €17m to the crisis in West Africa, and the minister praised the “very professional and very brave” Irish aid agency workers who are helping out on the ground.

His department has agreed with the Departments of Health and Foreign Affairs to support existing efforts by the Irish embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

“Three defence forces personnel will go to the embassy to support the activities that are currently ongoing there,” he said.

“We are also talking to the UK defence forces with the view to helping the UK in Sierra Leone in terms of setting up medical facilities there.”

He said five or six personnel will assist the British efforts. The Government will also consider requests from aid agencies GOAL and Concern that volunteers from the defence forces are sent to give assistance.

He said the Defence Forces have real expertise in this area.

“This is harrowing work, it is things like collecting dead bodies and burying them to make sure disease does not spread.

“It is issues like putting in place healthcare facilities from greenfield sites and trying to manage some very desperate populations trying to access those facilities. It is difficult work but it is very, very valuable work,” he said.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar said he would fully support Mr Coveney’s final decision.

“At Cabinet this week Minister Varadkar specifically supported the proposal to send troops to Sierra Leone on the basis that the best thing we can do to prevent the spread of ebola is working on the ground in West Africa,” his spokesman said.

Mr Varadkar also updated the Cabinet on his department’s preparedness to deal with a potential outbreak in Ireland.

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