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October 2, 2014

Near-Complete Aviation Cutoff Making It Even Harder to Control Ebola Outbreak

World Health Organization officials said Wednesday that Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the three countries hit hardest by the Ebola virus outbreak, are almost entirely cut off from international aviation and their near-isolation is making it difficult for outside agencies to help contain the outbreak.

“These three countries – they feel totally isolated,” Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of World Health Organization, told reporters at a briefing Wednesday.

Dr. David Nabarro, the UN’s senior coordinator for the Ebola outbreak, said both air access and sea access have been sharply curtailed to those countries.

“Without air access of some dependable kind, it’s very difficult indeed” to cope with the Ebola crisis which Chan called “the largest, most severe and most complex” since the Ebola virus was first identified in 1976.

“At the moment, boats are not docking in the ports of these African nations,” Nabarro added.

The countries face shortages of medical supplies, doctors, food, and fuel.

The Moroccan airline Royal Air Maroc is still flying from Casablanca to Monrovia, Conakry and Freetown, the capitals of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, respectively, but most other carriers have stopped flying to those airports.

Chan said Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) and other aid groups have not been able to get doctors to affected countries because there were no flights.

And she added that some countries in West Africa – which she didn’t identify – are not allowing UN planes or MSF planes to use their airports and airspace, which “is really not helping the response to the scale that we need.”

Nabarro, who has just returned from the Ebola-affected countries, said, “We do understand the anxiety of airlines and particularly the unions representing air crew about the possibility that they might face additional risk as a result of flying to countries where the outbreak is most intense.”

But he said, “It is possible to reduce the risk greatly by the application of proper public health measures based on an understanding of the way in which this disease is transmitted” – that is, through direct contact with an infected person’s blood or other bodily fluids.

WHO officials are trying to convince air carriers that they can operate again in the Ebola-afflicted countries.

“They are not actually afraid of Ebola,” Chan said. “We were told that they want to be sure that the countries they are flying to have good standard health care to take care of their crew members should they fall ill with non-Ebola medical issues, [or] should they need medical evacuation for cardiac or surgical emergencies. And this is clearly not happening on the ground at this point in time.”

One piece of good news reported by the WHO officials:  Ghana’s president, John Mahama, has just agreed to allow an “air bridge” through the airport at Accra to the three Ebola-affected countries.

“This will be accompanied by extreme care to make sure that all passengers are properly screened and of course that air crews are properly protected,” Nabarro said. “We want the planes to come in, but at the same time we want to be sure that air crew are properly protected from risks to their own health.”

Chan also noted that compared to other disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, “it is a different magnitude of anxiety and fear” and it has been difficult to find foreign medical teams willing to go to the Ebola-affected countries.

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