New European Medical Corps Will Tackle Ebola-like Emergencies

Member States will pool medical teams and equipment to help fight future outbreaks at home and abroad.
February 16, 2016, 6:55pm
Foto di Jean-Louis Mosser/Unione Europea, ECHO

The European Union is hoping it can better deal with disasters and crisis, and that a new EU organization can help.

It's called the European Medical Corps (EMC), and its aim is to help the EU respond faster to health emergencies by relying on a pool of volunteer medical staff provided by member states.

"Dozens of cases each day. An entire region under threat. And the whole world holding its breath... If there is one lesson we all learned from Ebola, it is this one: we were ALL not sufficiently prepared," said Christos Stylianides, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, at the launch of the organization on Monday in Brussels.

In concrete terms, the EMC will act as a liaison between EU states wishing to commit medical teams and equipment to the pool. The initiative will be part of the existing EU Civil Protection Mechanism, which is usually activated during natural catastrophes and has a control and coordination center that is operational 24/7.

"The Medical Corps is resuscitating the original "White Helmets" initiative proposed by France and Germany in 2014," a European Commission spokesperson told VICE News on the phone.

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Nine European countries, including France, have already announced they would contribute staff and equipment to the EMC. The needs of the agency are extremely varied, and include medical staff, coordination experts, mobile labs, and transport, just to name a few.

"The EMC is entirely volunteer-based, there is no obligation for member-states," said Hans Das, unit chief at the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department.

Also present at the launch was Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

"The Corps' medical teams will have to be certified by the WHO before they can be deployed in the field," said the European Commission spokesperson. In a statement released Monday, the Commission said that the EU would be able to cover up to "100 percent" of the costs associated with the required international certification of medical teams.

Once the medical teams are registered and certified, they can respond quickly to a call from the coordination center and be dispatched without delay to the affected region. Member states that have committed staff to the pool can refuse to take part in certain operations.

EMC teams on the ground answer to a crisis center specifically set up to respond to the crisis, or to the UN. Teams can also answer to authorities in the affected region.

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The Ebola outbreak — which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014 and 2015 — appears to have shocked European leaders into action.

Despite recognizing the EU's efforts in the fight against the virus, commissioner Stylianides bemoaned the lack of commitment of certain member states, whose help he solicited following a visit to the region in November 2014.

"When we asked... for medical personnel to help in the front line fight against Ebola, the response was very uneven," he said.

According to the pledges made by nine of the participating countries, the EMC should be able to rely on four emergency medical teams, six teams in charge of logistics and two biomedical laboratories — all of which can be deployed swiftly to affected areas.

As well as helping to contain outbreaks in far-flung regions like Ebola — the last known Ebola patient tested negative on February 7 — the EMC may also be called on to protect Europeans, explained EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.

"If we are unable to control [a virus] at the start [of an outbreak], the risk it that it will spread throughout the globe," he warned, adding that, "In Finland, 72 percent of registered infections are linked to resistant bacteria imported from other countries."

The EU contributed 1.8 billion euros ($2 billion) to the fight against Ebola.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was last triggered in April by the devastating earthquake in Nepal. The emergency response program was also activated in 2014 after severe flooding hit Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some 1,700 flood victims were rescued.

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This article originally appeared on VICE News' French edition.

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