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Canada contributes more money, but no medical workers in Ebola fight

Health Minister Rona Ambrose and Chief Public Health Officer Gregory Taylor are pictured during a news conference to update on current actions on the Ebola outbreak on Oct. 20, 2014, in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada is spending another $30.5-million to fight Ebola, but Ottawa is still not answering pleas from international aid organizations for medical personnel to care for the ill in West Africa.

The bulk of the money announced on Monday – $23.5-million – will be spent on testing a Canadian vaccine and an experimental therapy, ZMapp, both of which were developed largely at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.

"With the ZMapp, there isn't enough currently available to do any clinical trials," Gregory Taylor, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, told a news conference at the Winnipeg facility.

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"So by using this investment to produce more, we're hoping we can actually do clinical trials, which could then be used on the ground in West Africa. As well, [this money will] support stage two trials for our vaccine."

Dr. Taylor and Health Minister Rona Ambrose also announced that Ottawa would spend $1-million to add more quarantine officers at Canadian airports; give $3-million to the provinces to boost Ebola preparedness and donate another $3-million to the World Health Organization's efforts in West Africa.

That comes on top of $65.5-million announced previously to combat the lethal virus.

Stephen Cornish, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Canada, said he is pleased Ottawa is contributing more, especially toward clinical trials of the experimental vaccine.

But he said the greatest immediate need remains health-care workers to care for sick patients in West Africa.

"I would still hope that Canada would find a way to be able to run, directly, a treatment centre staffed by Canadians," he said.

Canada has so far dispatched two mobile laboratories with rotating teams of scientists to rapidly diagnose or rule out Ebola in Sierra Leone.

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But Ottawa has been reluctant to send medical staff to West Africa because the government cannot guarantee they could be airlifted out if they fall ill.

Canadians have been helping to care for Ebola patients in the region nonetheless. Since March, 34 Canadians have travelled to West Africa to volunteer with MSF, 10 of whom are there now.

News of the new money came after Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced late Friday that Canada would become only the second wealthy nation to curtail travel from the outbreak region.

Australia enacted similar measures last week.

Under the federal government's new rules, which have already taken effect, Canada will not process any new visas for work, study or travel from applicants who have in the past three months "resided, travelled or transited" in countries where Ebola transmission is widespread and intense as defined by the WHO.

Ms. Ambrose said on Monday that the new regime is "not a travel ban," because visas that have already been issued to foreign nationals from the three countries will continue to be honoured.

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The WHO has repeatedly urged world leaders not to cut off Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the countries at the heart of an Ebola epidemic that has infected at least 13,567 people and killed nearly 5,000.

"Travel interventions in general – and you can look not just to this outbreak, but to outbreaks in the past – tend to, I think, make people feel a little more comfortable, but they tend not to be very effective," said Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician and scientist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

Dr. Khan co-authored a study published in The Lancet last month that looked at international travel patterns from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. It found that between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31 of last year, about 1,300 people travelled from the three countries to Canada, which works out to between 1 and 1.5 per cent of the outgoing travellers from the region.

That was before the Ebola outbreak began. Dr. Khan estimates that travel volumes have since fallen by at least 50 per cent, likely more, as the virus's spread prompted airlines to cancel flights to the region.

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Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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