A Tauranga couple on a mission to help people in Africa have been diverted to Madagascar in a bid to avoid the ebola outbreak.

John and Sue Clynes have spent the past year as volunteers aboard the world's largest civilian hospital ship but because of the ebola epidemic, their mission has been diverted.

The couple is aboard the Africa Mercy, operated by Mercy Ships, and have been serving the ports on Africa's West Coast.

The ship has a crew of 400 with up to 60 children living onboard representing 40 nations.

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The Clynes are among five New Zealanders volunteering long term as nurses, an engineer and the ship's purser.

In April, Mercy Ships cancelled the hospital ship's planned deployment to Guinea, where the ebola outbreak began.

The vessel was due to sail for an alternative location in Benin in August but after further risk assessment ebola's growing virulence again forced the charity to make contingency plans.

The 16,000-tonne ship has five state-of-the-art operating rooms and is a fully modern hospital specialising in the provision of free expertise and health care to the region's poorest people but is not equipped to handle ebola.

"Our hearts go out to these people groups as many will succumb to ebola. It is with great anguish and sorrow that we feel we are leaving them behind," the couple said.

The Bay of Plenty Times caught up with them last year before they set off on their mission.

Mrs Clynes is a Tauranga Hospital theatre nurse while Mr Clynes, an employee of Bay Engineer Supplies, has been using his skills for ship repairs and maintenance.

Mr Clynes said working in Africa had always been a dream of his wife and had also become a passion of his own.

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"We went for a month last year to Togo to work on the ship and thought we could do it for longer. Since then, it's been our goal. It's going to be hard leaving our family and the community and all of those things but we're committed to it, we're at that stage of life now where we can do it," he said at the time.

Mercy Ships New Zealand director Graeme Walls said the Clynes' final destination was a long way from where they were initially headed but the ship and crew had been invited to Madagascar to help the nation's poorest people.

The Clynes have mixed feelings. "We are saddened that we are leaving the West and Central African arena as the needs there are great, but we feel confident we will find the people in Madagascar with similar situations of extreme poverty and medical need in what is an often-forgotten isolated corner of the world," they said.

Mercy Ships
Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free health care services to those in the developing world
It was founded in 1978
Mercy Ships has worked in more than 70 countries
It has provided more than $1.14 billion worth of services
More than 2.5 million people have been treated
Each year Mercy Ships has more than 1600 volunteers from more than 40 nations