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Borders shut as WHO admits Ebola outbreak ‘vastly underestimated’

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Kenya is the latest country to join an expanding list of airlines and nations banning travellers from west African countries at the centre of the worst Ebola virus outbreak on record.

While the World Health Organisation has admitted that it had “vastly underestimated” the scale of the outbreak, which has so far claimed at least 1145 lives out of 2127 confirmed and suspected cases, the multilateral agency urged against blanket travel and trade bans with affected areas.

But on the weekend Kenya joined Cameroon in banning people travelling from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia from entering the country , while several airlines including British Airways, Emirates and Korean Air from suspending flights to and from the countries, which are at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Already, the Liberian Government has announced a 90-day state of emergency and closed the majority of its borders, while Sierra Leone has declared a 60 to 90-day state of emergency, and Nigeria has announced a National Emergency following the death of two people from the disease, with a further five people suspected of being infected in quarantine.

Fears about the Ebola threat have been heightened following the WHO’s admission that earlier estimates about the scale of the outbreak had been seriously off-target.

“Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak,” it said last week.

The WHO had already upgraded its response to the outbreak. At a meeting on 6 and 7 August, its Emergency Committee declared it to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The upgraded status of the outbreak has ushered in a range of more stringent measures and greater resources aimed at taking the disease’s spread.

“WHO is coordinating a massive scaling up of the international response, marshalling support from individual countries, disease control agencies, agencies within the UN system, and others,” the agency said.

WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan told a meeting of Member States last week that around one million people in areas affected by the outbreak were in need of urgent support, including supplies of food and medicine. The United Nations has appointed Dr David Nabarro to coordinate its overall response to the crisis.

In an extraordinary move, a panel of medical ethicists convened by the WHO gave approval for the use of experimental drugs on people infected with Ebola, though the decision to use them on a case-by-case has been left to the treating clinicians.

Despite mounting international concern, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley said there was a “very low” risk of the infection entering the country.

Professor Baggoley said authorities were closely monitoring the outbreak and comprehensive plans and arrangements were in place in the unlikely event that an infected person arrived in the country.

The Department of Health said all boarder agencies were aware of the outbreak and had been advised on how to detect and quarantine any travellers displaying symptoms of Ebola infection.

Professor Baggoley said that, while Ebola was a very serious disease with no vaccine or treatment, it did not pose a pandemic threat.

He said it was not highly contagious and that, unlike the flu, it was not transmitted by coughing or sneezing.

He advised that the risk of infection was “extremely low” unless a person had direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or animal.

There have not been any reported cases in Australia.

Adrian Rollins