Health Officials Try to Quell Fear of Ebola Spreading by Air Travel

7 years, 9 months ago - August 15, 2014
The World Health Organization on Thursday swiftly sought to quell fears that international air travel could become a conduit for spreading the deadly Ebola virus from Africa around the globe, emphasizing that such a risk was low.

The organization acted after Korean Airlines suspended flights to Kenya, which is not among the four West African countries affected by Ebola — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria — but is a major air transit hub that serves those nations. A message on the organization’s Twitter account said: “W.H.O. disappointed when airlines stop flying to West Africa. Hard to save lives if we & other health workers cannot get in.”

But in another sign of spreading international concern, the State Department announced that it had ordered family members of staff members at the United States Embassy in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to leave the country. Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said it had taken the step at the recommendation of the department’s medical office “out of an abundance of caution.”   

At a hastily convened news conference in Geneva, where the World Health Organization is based, Isabelle Nuttall, its director of global responses, repeated earlier advice that “air travel even from Ebola-affected countries is low-risk for Ebola transmission.” Moreover, she said, the risk is low even for countries or airports that have high volumes of air travel to nations affected by the outbreak.

Her comments were partly meant to clarify interpretations of comments by a colleague in Kenya, Custodia Mandlhate, who said the country was “at high risk of transmission.” Korean Airlines suspended its service to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, soon afterward, calling it a measure to counter contagion.

In another Twitter message, meant to dispel any misunderstandings about contagion by air travel, the health organization said, “The chance of having someone who is sick with Ebola getting in a plane is small.”

The comments came less than a week after the health organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, a rarely invoked measure of urgency. Its latest summary on the progress of the outbreak, dated Wednesday, said that 1,069 people had died in the four countries.

Kenya Airways announced Thursday that its flight schedule to the affected countries had not been changed. Its chief executive, Titus Naikuni, said there was no need to suspend flights because airline officials had put in place safeguards to prevent transmission.

Ms. Nuttall confirmed that airports in the affected countries were already screening travelers for any signs of fever or other symptoms. She emphasized that unlike influenza or tuberculosis, Ebola is not spread by airborne transmission of germs, only by contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is contagious.

 

Text by The New York Times

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