SCOTTISH soldiers have been deployed in Sierra Leone on a humanitarian mission to combat Ebola, as the international crisis against the deadly outbreak intensified.
Some 40 troops from The Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, have already arrived in the West African country, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said.
The soldiers are among 750 military personnel being sent to West Africa along with the medical ship RFA Argus – a fully equipped hospital including critical care and high-dependency units – and three Merlin helicopters.
The latest deployment of British military personnel to the Ebola-affected region emerged following a meeting of the UK government’s Cobra emergency committee chaired by the Prime Minister.
A Number 10 spokesman said the meeting was held to discuss preparing the UK for potential domestic cases of Ebola and the country’s efforts to combat the disease in West Africa. Royal Scots Borderers commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Matt Munro – whose regiment is currently based in Co Down, Northern Ireland – said: “This is a challenge unlike any, but the point is that we are very well prepared. This kind of operation represents, I think, the future for parts of the British Army.
“We deployed in the first instance to Sierra Leone at very short notice, not knowing how long my people were likely to be there.”
And commenting on the risk soldiers had of catching the potentially fatal virus, he said: “There are some peculiar threats to this operation clearly relating to the Ebola virus and of course there is a risk of soldiers from this battalion contracting the virus. But it is a very low risk because there are all sorts of very practical and sensible measures that my people can employ to ensure that the risk is kept to an absolute minimum.
“And it is worth saying also that, for the most part, my soldiers have been queuing up to deploy…They joined the army to be challenged and evidence of that is that very many of them want to go.”
News of the UK deployment came as the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the US, Thomas Eric Duncan, died in the Texas hospital where he has been treated since 28 September.
Meanwhile, authorities in Spain continue to deal with the first case of the disease transmitted outside West Africa, a hospital nursing assistant who treated a priest flown to Madrid from West Africa for treatment.
Teresa Romero, who is in a stable condition, may have contracted the disease through touching her face with her glove after leaving the quarantine room where the Ebola victim was being treated. The nursing assistant’s husband remains in quarantine in Madrid.
And yesterday the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that sporadic cases in Europe are “unavoidable”.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Washington with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he had joined the Cobra meeting led by David Cameron via video link from the British Embassy, at which it was decided to deploy troops, helicopters and the RFA Argus to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.
He said the aim was “to provide a communication and transport capability”.
He revealed plans to conduct trials in Sierra Leone of a new model of Ebola care unit, a primary care triaging system for those with early stage symptoms in a bid to stem the spread of the illness which has already killed more than 3,000 people in West Africa.
Mr Hammond said: “The disease is an unprecedented threat that knows no borders. We have to get ahead of this disease, but if we get ahead of it, if we rise to the challenge, we can contain it and beat it.
“We know how to do this, it is not complicated to do, it just requires a large focus of resource and effort to deliver it.”
He added: “We now need the wider international community to step up to the plate and deliver that additional resource, not just money, but trained medical and clinical personnel to lead that effort. We all have to do more if we are going to prevent what is currently a crisis from becoming a catastrophe.”
The UK, he said, had committed more than £125 million to the programme in Sierra Leone, with military and civilian teams on the ground, plus a construction programme to deliver 700 Ebola treatment beds.
Mr Kerry said the US and UK were “standing together” to battle Ebola. He paid tribute to Britain’s response, saying: “We’re very grateful for the way Great Britain has now ramped up its efforts in Sierra Leone, including deploying a civil-military taskforce.”
He went on: “I am here to make an urgent plea to countries to step up even further. While we are making progress we are not where we need to be and there are additional needs that have to be met.”
The US has also announced plans to hand out information sheets with details of what symptoms to look for if people become sick within 21 days – the incubation period for Ebola. The US has pledged as many as 4,000 troops to the region.
UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also warned yesterday that it was possible someone with Ebola could enter Britain, but insisted the health service across the UK was prepared.
He said: “This is clearly one of the most serious global health emergencies of recent years. Our first priority as the government is to make sure the British people are safe.”.
A No 10 spokesman added: “The Chief Medical Officer has now issued further advice to medical professionals and would continue to do so. Information posters for passengers would be put up in UK airports.”
The government has come under pressure to introduce screening at airports and other transport hubs to prevent the disease spreading in the UK.
There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola, which has so far infected more than 7,500 people in the worst outbreak yet.
Ebola spreads through contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has the virus and the only way to stop an outbreak is to isolate those who are infected.