LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is sending extra troops, aircraft and a naval vessel to Sierra Leone to help stem the spread of the Ebola virus, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said following a meeting of the government’s emergency response committee.
Prime Minster David Cameron chaired a meeting of the committee in an effort to assuage growing public concern about the spread of the deadly virus to Europe.
Fears have grown since a nurse in Spain became the first person known to have caught the virus outside Africa and the World Health Organization warned that Europe was almost certain to see further cases.
“The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is already a global threat to public health, and it’s vital that the UK remains at the forefront of responding to the epidemic,” Fallon said.
Ebola has killed more than 3,400 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and its spread has become a global concern - even hurting the value of Britain’s top share index as the threat of the epidemic hit airline and tourism shares.[.L]
“Following today’s meeting, we are stepping up significantly the UK’s contribution and leadership in work to tackle the outbreak, on land, in the air and at sea,” Fallon said.
The pledge will see 750 military personnel travel to Sierra Leone next week to help establish treatment centers and a training facility. Three helicopters and a 100-bed naval hospital will also be sent to the region.
Alpha Kanu, Sierra Leone’s information minister, welcomed the pledge, saying Britain had reassured the government during a recent London donors’ conference that it would not abandon the former colony.
“This is a bold and big step,” he told Reuters. “In as much as we need equipment and money, we also need personnel. It would be good if most of the 750 were medics.”
Around 40 British military personnel, including engineers and planners, are currently in Sierra Leone overseeing the construction of a treatment center near capital city Freetown.
Britain had already pledged to send 100 field hospital staff to Sierra Leone and plans to build at least five treatment centers in the country with a total of 700 beds.
Wednesday’s meeting in London of senior ministers and public health officials was convened to discuss Britain’s preparedness in the event an Ebola case is discovered in Britain.
According to a spokesman from Cameron’s office, health officials told the meeting that the risk to the UK remained low and that Britain was conducting contingency planning and training hospital, ambulance and other key health staff on how to handle the disease.
Information posters would be displayed in airports and a nationwide preparation exercise would be carried out, the spokesman said without giving further details. Public Health England, the government body that monitors potential contagions, had on Tuesday ruled out screening airline passengers.
In the United States, media reports said that travelers arriving there from Ebola-stricken Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea would face mandatory screening measures for the deadly virus as soon as this weekend.
Any cases discovered in Britain would be directed to London’s Royal Free Hospital, which has a specialist unit capable of treating two patients and could expand its capacity if necessary, a health service spokeswoman said.
Additional reporting by Umaru Fofana in Freetown; Editing by Larry King