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Africa

German armed forces prepare to fight Ebola

The German government came in for strong criticism for not doing enough to combat Ebola. That will now change: 2,000 volunteers are ready to be deployed to West Africa.

Sergeant Major Jörg May regards the Ebola epidemic as a global threat. The 33 year-old works in a Bundeswehr hospital in the city of Coblenz and he's one of the 2,000 who responded to the call by Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen for volunteers to join the fight against Ebola in West Africa. "If there is the chance of stemming the spread of the virus, then I will be happy to take part in this mission," May said. "As soldiers we have often provided humanitarian aid," he added, recalling assistance given after the 2004 tsunami catastrophe in Asia.

Johannes Backus is a medical staff officer, now commander of the "Ebola Task Force." He also regards the epidemic as a exceptional situation which is making high demands on people and resources. He is pleased with the big response to the minister's call. Soldiers, reservists and civilian staff members from all branches of the Bundeswehr as well as from the civilian population have volunteered to help

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen

Defense Minister Ursula Leyen is 'overwhelmed' by the response to her call for volunteers

Airlift begins

Together with the German Red Cross (DRK) and the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), the Bundeswehr will first set up and run a mobile hospital in Liberia with 300 beds.The Bundeswehr itself would provide 50 of these beds which would require a 160-strong support team.The state health service in Liberia is in particularly poor shape. According to Backus, it still has to be decided whether the German mission should focus on the care and treatment of Ebola patients or on securing basic medical care. An airlift was due to start this Thursday (25.09.2014) between Dakar in Senegal and the Liberian capital Monrovia, bringing materiel and personnel to the stricken country.

Medical staff officer Peter Lüke and task force commander Johannes Backus

Medical staff officer Peter Lüke and task force commander Johannes Backus

The volunteers are currently being assessed for their suitability for the mobile hospital mission. Appropriate qualifications but also the ability to work under stress will be the decisive factors. Backus said. Those selected would then undergo special training; a week is envisaged for professional medical staff, for those without specialist knowledge it would take longer.

Such volunteers are also very welcome, the task force commander stressed, referring in particular to people with experience in caring for sick relatives. There would, of course, also be a need for trained personnel who could quickly assess situations and issue appropriate instructions.

Need for 'barrier nursing''

The Bundewehr has been involved in efforts to bring the Ebola outbreak under control since April. The Bundeswehr Institute for Microbiology has developed mobile laboratories to speed up diagnosis of the disease and has trained African and European scientists in their use. Three such laboratories are in Guinea as part of an EU mission.

The Bundeswehr has around twenty tropical medicine experts, medical staff officer Peter Lüke told DW. In past years, about a hundred people were trained for the kind of care now needed with Ebola – what is known as "barrier nursing" with quarantine areas around the infected patients. This training should now be extended. Lüke believes that it is still possible to contain Ebola with extensive international efforts but says it is becoming "increasingly difficult."

Sergeant Major May thinks he will need to undergo a refresher course to familiarize himself again with protective clothing and the use of disinfectants if he is to go to West Africa. His wife is a Bundeswehr doctor and supports him in his decision to volunteer. May has experience in working with infectious diseases and is also familiar with evacuation procedures. He previously served in Kosovo.

Four men in protective clothing carry a corpse in a body bag in Liberia

Liberian volunteers help with the task of removing the bodies of Ebola victims

Assurances from defense minister

Medical staff officer Bernhard Raffel is another volunteer. He works in a laboratory and could help with the diagnosis of samples. He believes that the battle against the epidemic will be a long one. He has previously served on the Horn of Africa, in Afghanistan and the Balkans and wants to encourage others to join the West Africa mission.

The news that helpers have been attacked in some Ebola-affected regions does not worry him, Raffel says. He is confident that those in charge of the mission will take measures to ensure the safety of the new health centers. Minister von der Leyen had given this pledge to the soldiers, as well as the assurance that any helper who becomes infected with Ebola would be brought back to Germany. "That is an important message for the volunteers," says task force commander Johannes Backus "so that everyone knows, if anything happens to me, I'll be taken care of and brought back home."

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