OTTAWA - Canadian military medical specialists are getting ready to deploy to the epicentre of the fight against the deadly Ebola virus, and the federal government is encouraging private health care workers to join them.
As the government took part in Thursday's launch of the "Join the Fight Against Ebola" recruitment campaign at the Ottawa Hospital, medical workers just down the hall were practising the painstaking ritual of donning and removing the layers of protective gear they'll need to help people in Sierra Leone.
Teams of military medical specialists will be deployed to Sierra Leone for two months at a time over a six-month period beginning at the end of December.
The government says up to 40 Canadian Armed Forces health care and support staff will deploy to the West African country at any given time.
The military doctors, nurses, medics and others will work alongside military medics from the United Kingdom at the Kerry Town Treatment Unit.
Their task will be to treat local and international health care workers who have been exposed to the deadly Ebola virus — but not the local population. That decision was based on a request from the British military, said Defence Minister Rob Nicholson.
"According to the information we have and in our discussions there was a need for this," Nicholson told a news conference Thursday at the Ottawa's Hospital's civic campus.
"So we indicated we would supply that service."
Some are wondering what has taken so long.
"It's belated, there's no question about it. How many months now after the call for more human resources are we answering?" said Dr. Ross Upshur, a Toronto public health expert and a member of the ethics advisory board for the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"But better late for never, that's for sure. And let's hope that there's more. It's commendable. But why are we the followers and not the leaders here?"
Canada had been reluctant to send medical aid workers to West Africa until it had guarantees that it could get people home if they became infected. But Health Minister Rona Ambrose said evacuation services have since improved.
"We didn't feel it was responsible for us to be encouraging people to go to West Africa until we felt very comfortable with the medical evacuation options for Canadians," Ambrose said.
"We feel comfortable with that now."
One company in particular, Georgia-based Phoenix Air, has tripled its capacity to deal with evacuation requests.
Health workers are desperately needed in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where the virus has been spreading. The World Health Organization said on Wednesday the total number of Ebola cases was nearing 16,000. As of Nov. 23, it said 15,935 cases had been reported in eight countries.
Of those infected during the epidemic, 5,689 have died.
The WHO also says 592 health care workers had been infected with Ebola as of Nov. 23. Of those, 340 have died — the vast majority of them local residents in countries with very low health worker-to-patient ratios.
Ambrose also announced $20.9 million in new additional funding to 10 humanitarian organizations working to address the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the Ebola outbreak.
The money will go to the Canadian Red Cross Society, French Red Cross Society, Medecins sans Frontieres, Action Contre la Faim, Canadem, Care Canada, Oxfam Quebec, Plan Canada, Samaritan's Purse and Save the Children.
"We've been asking for the Canadian government to scale up efforts and to send medical personnel to the field for months now," said Stephen Cornish, the executive director of Medecins Sans Frontieres Canada.
"So we are clearly very pleased with today's announcement."
Aid workers in the field are now seeing some of the pledges made months ago being delivered, but scale-up from many countries has been slow and there are still critical gaps in almost every area of the response, said Cornish.
International attention toward the crisis has waned in recent weeks as word has spread that the outbreak may be slowing. In Liberia, for instance, the number of new Ebola cases has been steadily easing.
But the spread of the virus is expected to continue for months and more health-care workers are still desperately needed.
Canadian health care workers employed by the federal government who volunteer for duty in West Africa are being promised the same jobs, salaries and benefits upon their return that they had before leaving.
But it'll be up to individual provinces to decide whether workers from their own jurisdictions will enjoy the same commitments, said Ambrose.
Red Cross Canada has sent 19 personnel to West Africa since the beginning of the outbreak in March.
— With files from Helen Branswell in Toronto