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Why I'm going to West Africa

A long flight gives you plenty of time to think. I’m now on the final leg of a two-day journey to West Africa and I’ve been reflecting on the reaction to the news that I would be visiting Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Some have been effusive in their praise while others are puzzled, wondering why a politician would put themselves at risk of contracting a life-threatening infectious disease. Some have even implied that it’s nothing more than a photo opportunity, an understandable response given how often Australian politics seems to be about appearances rather than good policy. But if it is a stunt then my entire professional life before politics falls into that category too.

Before becoming a Senator I worked as a public health doctor. I worked in HIV prevention in India, in remote Aboriginal communities and as part of a communicable diseases outbreak investigation team. The truth is my decision is neither brave nor irresponsible.

One of the reasons I changed career is that politics provides opportunities to improve the lives of people in ways that medicine never can. People’s health is determined by so many factors: educational opportunities, decent housing, employment and a good health system. And these are the business of politics.

As a parliamentarian committed to public health, it has been impossible to ignore such an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola. That is why I am visiting West Africa.

(Photo - Richard combatting HIV in India)

Ebola has been in the news since early this year. There aren’t as many news stories in Australia now, but the reports from international organisations are still concerning. The UN has announced that we have met several of the targets set to for the global response, but there is still much work to be done. The crisis is far from over.

People are still getting sick, and though there are many more beds available in treatment centres than there were a few months ago, reports are that too many people are still not getting the health care they need. Not only does good health care increase their chances of surviving, it ensures that relatives and care-givers are not exposed to the virus.

Less well known, is the impact the outbreak is having on the health systems of these countries. Many clinics and hospitals have been unable to cope with the influx of new cases. In some places health workers were no longer prepared to go to work and some hospitals have decided that the risks to their staff and patients are simply too high so have closed their doors. The result is that some people who become sick from treatable conditions like malaria and gastroenteritis can no longer get the care that they need.

The UN Population Fund estimates that 800,000 women are due to give birth in Ebola affected regions in the next 12 months and the Disaster Emergency Committee claims that one in seven is likely to face life-threatening complications. A combination of fear of Ebola transmission through bodily fluids together with health systems under immense strain means many of those women will not receive the necessary medical care and the maternal mortality rate could soar. These deaths might not be included in the official death toll from Ebola but they are a direct consequence of the outbreak.

A close examination of the countries affected reveals why the impact of this outbreak has been so devastating. Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are ranked 175th, 179th and 183rd respectively 187 countries on the Human Development Index. That makes them some of the poorest countries on earth. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone are recovering from devastating civil wars. The Ebola outbreak has compounded these recent tragedies.

Ebola is a very dangerous virus but we know how to prevent it from spreading and how to administer treatment that increases the chance of survival. With the right public health measures containment is possible. That’s why the virus poses little direct risk to the Australian community.

This is not a natural disaster. It is a disaster that emerged because of poverty and underdevelopment. And it is a disaster that has worsened because the global community has failed to support the people affected.

My trip is not a one man mission to stop the epidemic. But my hope is that I can listen to people’s stories, understand the response a little better and identify some gaps where Australia might be able to contribute. If my trip can shine a spotlight on this diabolical crisis and if that leads to public pressure on the government to increase our contribution, then it will have been worthwhile.

Being a public health doctor as well as a federal Senator means that I have been granted a platform that few others have. I have the medical expertise and the privileged access that comes with being a Senator. That means I have a responsibility to bear witness to what’s happening in West Africa. If not me then who?

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