Nigeria pledges 600 volunteers as Africa steps up Ebola fight

By Felix Onuah and Umaru Fofana ABUJA/FREETOWN (Reuters) - Nigeria pledged on Thursday to send a contingent of 600 volunteers to help fight the worst ever outbreak of Ebola on record which has killed nearly 5,000 people in West Africa. With financial pledges flowing in from around the world but trained doctors and nurses scarce in the three worst effected countries -- Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the African Union appealed last week to member states to urgently fill the gap. African nations' response to the crisis has drawn criticism, with officials in Liberia bemoaning a lack of African solidarity. The World Health Organization (WHO) has rebuked some African countries for closing borders to Ebola-hit states, saying this worsened their suffering by cutting off supplies. Nigeria, the continent's largest economy and top oil producer, gained experience in containing Ebola after an air traveler imported the virus from Liberia in July, infecting 20 people and killing 8. "Nigeria has 600 health workers who have been trained in the field of Ebola containment who are ready to go to other affected African countries to help them in containment of Ebola spread," acting health minister Khaliru Alhassan told Reuters. "The first contingent of 250 Nigeria experts will be deployed soon," he said but did not provide a date. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, told reporters in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown that countries in East Africa had responded with a pledge of 600 health workers. Democratic Republic of Congo, which has suffered six outbreaks of Ebola since the disease was first detected there in 1976, had also pledged to train 1,000 volunteers, she said. The WHO originally appealed for 12,000 local staff and 750 foreign experts but has raised those targets to 20,000 and 1,000 respectively. WHO assistant director general Keiji Fukuda said there were now only 600 foreign experts. AU STILL WAITING FOR RESPONSES The WHO declared Nigeria Ebola-free on Monday but Alhassan said the outbreak remained a threat to the country until it was completely neutralized. The international community has ramped up aid including sending some medics and supplies to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, where the epidemic has crippled poor and under-equipped health systems. The United States is deploying a 3,000-strong military mission to build up to 17 Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) and train local doctors, while Cuba has dispatched hundreds of medical personnel. Alhassan said the Nigerian Center for Disease Control would also support Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in training their health workers. "What we are waiting for now is that the request has to come through (West African regional bloc) ECOWAS and has to be coordinated by WHO," he said. Speaking in Freetown, Dlamini Zuma said the AU had felt obliged to make a direct plea to members in mid-October because it realized that appealing for volunteers to come forward individually was not enough for the scale of the crisis. "We wrote to all our heads of state asking them to give us health workers who would be deployed here in these three countries... We are still waiting for responses," she said. "East Africa has responded and they have pledged more than 600 health workers, DRC has also pledged about 1,000 but they will bring them in phases," she said. "They say they will start probably with about 200. So we are waiting for those to come and also pledges to come from other countries." Congo Health Minister Felix Kabange told Reuters in mid-October the government aimed to train more than 1,000 volunteers to fight Ebola, which he hoped would inspire "African solidarity". He invited other countries to send volunteers to new training centers in the capital Kinshasa. (Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Bate Felix and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Mark Heinrich)