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Family physician and University of Toronto professor Dr. Brian Cornelson (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI)
Family physician and University of Toronto professor Dr. Brian Cornelson (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI)

Canadians volunteer to join Ebola fight in West Africa Add to ...

Brian Cornelson was just finishing a two-year stint helping to found a family medicine program at an Ethiopian university when he decided to turn his attention west to the Ebola-ravaged region of the continent.

The Toronto family physician and professor at the University of Toronto said it felt like a “natural” choice to volunteer to treat Ebola patients, especially after reading a diary entry in the London Review of Books by Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor of global health who had recently returned from Liberia.

“One of the things that [Dr.] Farmer said was, ‘The Dallas Cowboys football stadium uses more electricity in a year than the country of Liberia,’” Dr. Cornelson said. “I just thought, I can’t live in a world that that’s insane and not doing something about it if I’m able.”

With that in mind, Dr. Cornelson became one of at least 627 Canadians who have responded to the Red Cross’s call for doctors, nurses and support staff to deploy to West Africa to combat the often-lethal virus.

Not all of those volunteers will meet the requirements for the mission, but the enthusiastic response so far means the organization is well on the way to meeting its goal of sending 160 Canadians into the field over the next 10 months.

The recruitment drive is a first for the Canadian Red Cross, which usually draws on its roster of previously trained aid workers to respond to a disaster overseas. But the Ebola epidemic has lasted so long and required so much staff that the agency had no choice but to try a new approach.

“We had to rethink our strategy – not just in Canada, but in many countries,” said Stephane Michaud, the deputy director of operations, international emergencies and recovery for the Canadian Red Cross. “How can we get the volume that we need? Because Ebola, unfortunately, is not going to go away quickly.”

Like other non-governmental organizations that have responded to the Ebola crisis, the Red Cross faced obstacles in attracting new aid workers, including the heightened fears of potential volunteers’ families and the unusual length of the deployments. Most Red Cross missions are four weeks; Ebola deployments last eight weeks, including training and three weeks of self-quarantine at the end of the trip.

The Canadian Red Cross launched its Ebola recruitment campaign in September, but the effort received a big boost at the end of November when Ottawa announced it would partner with the agency to attract more volunteers.

At the same time, the Harper government, which has also dispatched 40 military medical staff to Sierra Leone, announced it had secured medical evacuation services for any Canadians who contracted Ebola in the field, something Health Minister Rona Ambrose called critical to sending more Canadians safely into Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

About half of the volunteer applications received by the Red Cross rolled in after Ottawa’s announcement. At least 39 of the volunteers are federal employees, including 15 from the Public Health Agency of Canada, according to a spokesman for Health Canada.

Other Canadian aid workers, separate from the Red Cross, have travelled to West Africa, where the virus has infected more than 19,000 and killed more than 7,500 as of Dec. 22, according to the World Health Organization’s official figures.

The Red Cross has already sent 27 of its more experienced aid workers to a treatment centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has dispatched 54 Canadian field workers on 62 Ebola assignments since March. (Some volunteers have already gone twice and one three times.)

MSF has been at the forefront of the Ebola response and is widely credited with sounding the alarm that woke the rest of the world to the unfolding catastrophe.

The organization’s international president, Joanne Liu, said MSF has not had difficulty attracting volunteers, but the organization is stretched to near its snapping point.

In August, MSF had 60 international staff and 500 local staff working in the three countries hardest hit by Ebola. Now they have 320 expatriates and 3,500 locals aiding in the response, said Dr. Liu, a Canadian.

“We actually are not running out of people who want to volunteer,” she said. “Our biggest concern right now is our experienced staff are all getting out of breath in terms of being redeployed and redeployed in the field. That’s the challenge.”

Dr. Cornelson is hoping he can provide some relief to the veterans who have already completed two or three tours in the Ebola zone. He received his formal letter of offer from the Red Cross in mid-December and he will be heading to the organization’s Kenema treatment centre in the new year.

He was in Calgary visiting his 89-year-old father when he got the news.

“[My Dad,] said, “You know, that’s been my biggest fear, that you would do something like that,’” Dr. Cornelson recalled. “He’d obviously be happier if I was not doing it, but my father has always been very accepting and very supportive of what I do.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that a diary entry by Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor of global health, was in the New York Review of Books. In fact, it was in the London Review of Books.

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