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Minister on Ebola: We are ready for any threat

Published: 
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Chief of Defence Staff Major Gen Kenrick Maharaj, left, speaks with acting National Security Minister Clifton De Coteau during a media conference at the National Operations Centre, Port-of-Spain, yesterday. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

Two public hospitals have been mandated to set up the necessary screening and quarantine units to accommodate anyone diagnosed with the Ebola virus. Yesterday, several stakeholder agencies formed a partnership and set up two committees to deal head-on with the now global emergency. Acting National Security Minister Clifton de Coteau assured the nation that systems were in place for the early detection and treatment of anyone suspected or confirmed to be afflicted with the virus.

During a break from the day-long stakeholder meeting at the National Operations Centre, Knowsley Building, Port-of-Spain, De Coteau said it had become necessary to inform the public about Government’s efforts. Pointing to the heads of various agencies alongside him at the table, De Coteau said: “It has become necessary to synchronise efforts and share information so we would not have the population in a panic mode because it is too easy to speculate not having all the information.”

Also participating in yesterday’s meeting was permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Security Carl Francis; chief medical officer in the Ministry of Health Dr Colin Furlonge; chief executive officer of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management Dr Stephen Ramroop; Chief of Defence Staff Major General Kenrick Maharaj; director general of Civil Aviation Ramesh Lutchmedial and chief immigration officer Gerry Downes.

Passengers en route to T&T displaying symptoms of a communicable disease would be met by officials and taken for further screening. Taking the lead in this initiative is the Ministry of Health who formulated the measures that were identified through the North Central Regional Health Authority.

Furlonge said a 12-bed area has been set up at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex (EWMSC), Mt Hope, to be used to triage suspected cases, while two 24-bed wards have also been set up at the Caura Hospital “if it is necessary at all to quarantine anyone.” He said three rooms had also been identified at the EWMSC Intensive Care Unit, which will be capable of providing isolation and ensuring clinical care was administered.

Furlonge said the close proximity of the Caura Hospital to EWMSC ensured easy accessibility by anyone needing urgent medical care. These measures were decided upon following meetings with regional health authorities, the national surveillance unit, county medical officers of health responsible for the port areas located in the St George West, St George East and Caroni districts.

Promising a public education blitz campaign in the days ahead, Furlonge said the ministry would be using newspaper, radio and television advertisements to guide the public about the symptoms, risk factors, vaccines and available care. He said: “We recognise that Ebola is non-specific and may look like any other viral illness. We have in T&T a number of viral and bacterial illnesses which may mimic infections like Ebola. We have to be aware and upscale what we do in general, try our best to allay public fears and provide care.”

Furlonge assured the public the authorities were ready for any scenario that may develop. Maritime border surveillance is also expected to be increased in a bid to reduce the number of people entering the country illegally and who would not be screened by the proper authorities. As of August 2, a total of 1,610 cases were recorded globally, with 890 deaths including more than 80 healthcare workers.

Confirming the deaths had been confined to countries on the African continent, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, De Coteau said with no direct flights to this country from places where Ebola outbreaks were reported, “we have been assured through the Ministry of Health that so far, thank God we are safe.” Civil aviation head Ramesh Lutchmedial said there were guidelines to be followed by flight crews if they suspected anyone coming to the country who had displayed symptoms of the virus.

These include contacting the air traffic control centre who will inform the Airports Authority, which will in turn activate emergency measures at the first port of entry. Lutchmedial said the airport where the passenger embarked on the flight would also be notified. Permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Security, Carl Francis, said local authorities had been in contact with international agencies as they sought to co-ordinate a holistic approach to the situation.

“We are on the ball. We are connected internationally. We will be connected more regionally. We are in the throes of planning and on top of this. We want to convey to the public there is no need to panic,” he said. Admitting that the problem of illegal entrants into the country was a cause for concern, chief immigration officer Gerry Downes said anyone arriving in T&T should be screened by port health workers before approaching immigration officers.

He said if anyone required further testing, there was legislation providing for them not being allowed to enter the country immediately. Head of the ODPM, Dr Stephen Ramroop, said early warning systems were key in detecting anyone suffering with the virus as he assured that measures were in place to facilitate staff training, competency development, identifying gaps in the current system and a public education campaign.

High mortality rate
At a welcome ceremony for ten Chinese medical specialists yesterday, Health Minister Fuad Khan said his ministry was collaborating with the Ministry of National Security to manage the possible spread of the Ebola virus in T&T. The deadly virus, which has spread to several countries in west Africa and currently has victims in both Europe and the United States, has not yet reached the Caribbean. “Ebola is a serious problem. There is a 60 per cent mortality rate. We have to be very careful,” Khan said.

He said the illness was haemorrhagic which meant victims bled to death. Khan said the National Security Ministry had helped create a programme that dealt with border security, and the plan was to control both legal and illegal ports of entry to ensure the virus did not enter the country unknowingly.