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Mercy Ships voyage delayed due to Ebola outbreak

 The Africa Mercy is the world's largest private hospital ship. It is owned by Mercy Ships and staffed by a volunteer crew of 400 people from 35 nations.
The Africa Mercy is the world's largest private hospital ship. It is owned by Mercy Ships and staffed by a volunteer crew of 400 people from 35 nations.
©Mercy Ships

For the first time in its 36 years of service Mercy Ships, who own and operate the world’s largest civilian hospital on water, will be delayed sailing due to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. The organization announced Monday, Aug. 18, through a press release obtained by Examiner, that the specialized surgical hospital ship is not equipped to treat viral infections.

In April, the organization decided to cancel its deployment to Guinea, where ,according to Mercy Ships, the Ebola virus first broke out in December. The ship prepared to set sail the week of Aug. 11, to Benin, instead, but has again been docked while the Ebola outbreak continues to be monitored in neighboring Nigeria. Mercy Ships is following the recommendation from the US Center for Disease Control which includes banned travel to Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. Also, should a crew guest or day crew visit an affected country they are not allowed back in the ship for at least 21 days.

USA Today reported on Aug. 22 that the World Health Organization lists the number of reported Ebola cases at 2,615 with 1,427 deaths. Even with borders between countries closed off, many people are hiding family members who are infected, and it is estimated that it could take up to nine months to stop the epidemic.

“Africa is and remains our priority, but crew safety drives every decision,” president and co-founder of Mercy Ships Don Stephens said in the press release. “We request prayer as we consider all options to manage the risk, including deployment to other unaffected nations.”

Mercy Ships was founded by Don and Deyon Stephens in 1978. The hospital ship travels to underdeveloped and poor countries to provide free medical assistance to those in need. Mercy ships runs off of donations provided by individuals, churches, rotary clubs, hospitals, corporations, foundations and trusts. The ship is staffed by 400 volunteers from 40 nations. Each volunteer donates a monthly fee for room and board on the ship. The surgeries that they offer include: maxillofacial surgeries, plastic reconstructive surgeries, general surgeries, obstetric fistula (childbirth injuries), ophthalmic, orthopaedic, dental, palliative care and mental health. Agricultural classes, taught by Mercy Ship agricultural specialists, are also available to local organizations. Don said these courses were made available because he believes health starts with agriculture, and not in the hospital in need of a life-saving surgery. Africa Mercy, the organization’s vessel, has five operating theatres and 82-bed ward.

Unfortunately Mercy Ships is not equipped to treat viral epidemics. On Aug. 22, in an email with Examiner, Don explained that the primary requirement to combat Ebola is appropriate isolation. The focus of Mercy Ships is specialized surgeries, which are mentioned above. The ship is not designed to respond to epidemics and has limited isolation units.

“Multi-bed wards and limited isolation facilities, close proximity to crew accommodation and dining for families and children are but a few restraints,” Don said. “We also hire 200 day crew in each port as part of our training and capacity building for Africa.”

The original schedule to Guinea would have involved a 10-month stay in that country. Don said that most of the volunteers currently on the ship are long term volunteers, and the delay would not have much effect on their schedules. Those who were on a shorter stay have either rescheduled or cancelled. While the ship is docked in the Canary Islands the crew will not be short on duties said Don. “Various departments throughout the organization are working on contingency plans and schedules, while others are focused on general operations and longer-term goals,” he shared in the email. “These include reviewing the work achieved in Congo, developing long-term partnerships with other organizations, and evaluating current processes and procedures.”

Mercy Ships will remain waiting until further notice, most likely at the end of the month, as to whether or not they will have the green light to sail over to Africa. Should their host country continue to have restricted travel, Don said they will look to another country on the continent.

“Mercy Ships has many, many friends in West Africa,” Don said. “In the meantime, our prayers go out to all those affected by this terrible epidemic, especially those in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria.” For more information about this organization can be found on their website.

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