PRATICA DI MARE AIR BASE, Italy (AP) – The pa-tient, a slight woman in her 30s, lay motionless on the stretcher as a half-dozen men in biohazard suits transferred her from a C-27J cargo plane into an ambulance and then into a mobile hospital isolation ward, never once breaking the plastic seal encasing her.
The exercise put on Wednesday was just a simulation of the procedures that would be used to evacuate an Ebola patient to Italy. But for Italian military, Red Cross and health care workers, it offered essential experience, especially for those on the front lines of the country’s sea-rescue ope-ration involving thousands of African migrants who arrive here every day in smugglers’ boats.
Italian authorities and medical experts insist that the risk of Ebola spreading from Africa to Europe is small, given that the virus only spreads by direct contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids. They say Italy’s first case of Ebola will probably be an Italian doctor or missionary who contracts the disease while caring for patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea – the three hardest-hit countries – and is airlifted home for treatment.
Yet concern runs high: EU health ministers who met this week in Milan spent an entire session discussing Ebola and the EU. They concluded that, while the risk of the disease coming to Europe is low, the EU must improve coordina-tion and prevention measures to better diagnose, transport and treat suspected cases.
“There is an emergency,” said Dr Natale Cec-carelli, who heads the infirmary at the Pratica di Mare air force base south of Rome, where the training course was staged. “If one person is infected, he infects everyone.”
Ceccarelli has already flown once to an Italian navy transport ship taking part in the Mare Nos-trum rescue operation after a would-be refugee who was picked up at sea was flagged during a routine health screening. The patient was airlifted in one of the same self-contained mobile isola-
tion units used for the defence ministry’s simu-lation drill. He went first to Sicily and then to Rome aboard a C-130 transport plane and was taken immediately to the capital’s Spallanzani hospital, which specialises in infectious diseases.