OTTAWA - Canada will not send any doctors or nurses to West Africa to help contain the deadly Ebola virus without a solid evacuation plan, Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Monday.
"We are looking at options to send personnel, but at this time we are not going to be sending any more medical personnel until we feel strongly that we have a guaranteed medical evacuation," she said.
"There are very limited services available when it comes to medical evacuation. We do have an arrangement with the United States, but even their medical evacuation is limited."
Canada has an arrangement with the United States, which uses private charter airline Phoenix Air to handle Ebola patients, she added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use Phoenix Air's two Gulfstream jets to transfer patients with highly contagious diseases like Ebola.
The company, based near Atlanta, is now outfitting a third jet with special medical equipment and a zippered plastic room that uses HEPA filters to keep diseases from spreading throughout the aircraft.
Very few aircraft are equipped to evacuate Ebola patients. A Phoenix Air spokesman said he was too busy to grant an interview.
Other countries have similar arrangements with the United States. That puts a strain on the number of flights available to countries like Canada.
"We are one of many other countries that also have the same arrangement," Ambrose said. "The U.S. is obviously working with us to look at other options, but we are not the only country facing this challenge."
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also said his government will not send doctors or nurses to West Africa until it is satisfied all risks are properly managed.
Other flight options in West Africa are limited and Ambrose said commercial airlines aren't an option if someone catches Ebola.
Canadians have been in the Ebola zone for months. Some are there with the World Health Organization and others have gone with Doctors Without Borders.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has two mobile laboratories in West Africa. One mobile lab team is helping local health-care workers quickly diagnose Ebola. The other is working with Doctors Without Borders to monitor how well prevention measures such as handwashing stations, face masks and disposal sites are working to stop Ebola from spreading.
Ambrose held a news conference Monday with the country's new chief public health officer, Dr. Gregory Taylor.
A joint exercise held over the weekend with Nova Scotia public health officials to ensure Canada is ready in the event of its first case of the disease was successful, the minister said.
The Sunday drill followed a smaller one that took place on Friday in Ottawa to test an Ebola rapid response team's ability to quickly assemble the proper gear and equip one of the four dedicated Transport Canada aircraft currently on standby in the capital and Winnipeg.
Other provinces have asked for similar drills.
The federal Liberals have tabled a motion in the Commons that would compel Ambrose, Taylor and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney to appear at a parliamentary committee twice a month with an update on Canada's efforts to deal with the Ebola threat.
Follow @steve_rennie on Twitter