30 July 2014

West Africa: Ebola - 'The First Thing Is Public Awareness'

Photo: Samaritans Purse
Dr Kent Brantly cares for an Ebola patient in the isolation ward before he tested positive for the virus.

interview

In Liberia, local media were reporting that bodies were floating in rivers and lying abandoned in houses as the authorities struggled to cope with an Ebola outbreak that has killed hundreds across West Africa.

The World Health Organization is describing the outbreak as the deadliest ever and the International Civil Aviation Organization has been meeting global health officials to discuss measures to halt the disease. One pan-African airline ASKY has already suspended all flights to the capitals of Liberia and Sierra Leone over the outbreak.

DW: How are flight bans likely to impact on those countries where Ebola cases have been confirmed?

Manji Cheto: It's a huge concern for a lot of these countries especially coming at a time when African economies are looking up and are receiving a lot of interest. We have been seeing a major push by major airlines, trying to move into Africa to capitalize on the increasing investment and trade flows on the continent, so a flight ban would be a significant economic blow.

Could such measures really halt the spread of the virus? Doctors Without Borders say it is out of control. Are these travel restrictions coming too late?

I think there is definitely that sort of concern. We are looking at a regional outbreak that began back in March and if there really was to have been a concerted effort to implement flight bans then that should have come way back in March when the first regional outbreak was out there. So I think that in a way some of the moves towards flight bans are probably driven by political considerations and also driven by financial considerations on the part of the airlines because you need to be able to say to potential customers you are implementing measures that would give them some level of confidence.

The International Civil Aviation Organization is considering issuing guidelines on travel to West Africa. How effective would they be, bearing in mind there are also many small private planes flying to and from countries in the region?

I think it is important to flag up that you can't achieve hundred percent, completely foolproof measures, but at this point any sort of measures that would limit the risk of contagion within the African continent and overseas would very much be welcomed and while you can't be sure they would be foolproof, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

What measures should Europe put in place since it looks as if the virus is crossing borders. What should countries in the European Union be doing?

The first thing there is public awareness. One of the reasons why we have the cross-border spread of the disease across West Africa was because of limited public awareness. Governments have been struggling with this. For religious and cultural reasons, a lot of people did not believe in the virus and when they did, there was some kind of belief that taking people into churches or mosques could actually cure them of the virus. That's much less of a problem in the developed world, but certainly public awareness in terms of the transmission method is still very low in the Western world, so I think there is a responsibility for governments to start raising public awareness in societies .

Manji Cheto is vice-president of Teneo Intelligence, a London-based risk analysis organization.

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