The Star (Nairobi)

15 August 2014

West Africa: KQ Rejects Pressure to Abandon West Africa

A defiant Kenya Airways yesterday said it will continue to fly to Ebola-stricken West Africa, despite demands from many Kenyans, including MPs, that it suspends flights to the region.

The airline's decision came a day after Korean Air announced that it will stop flying to Kenya following the World Health Organization classification of this country as a high-risk area.

Korean Air said yesterday that it will suspend flights to and from Nairobi from Wednesday next week. But KQ, through its Managing Director Titus Naikuni, refused to budge, insisting that it "does not see a major risk that warrants stopping operations".

"The Management of Kenya Airways does not see a major risk that warrants stopping operations into the region. This means we will continue with our flights while reviewing the position on a daily basis," said a statement from Naikuni.

But pressure from both the National Assembly and the Kenya Medical Association reached a crescendo, with the latter dismissing surveillance measures currently in force as "a public relations gimmick".

"Do we still need to risk the public's life at the expense of private interests? There is need to look beyond commercial reasons and look at the people's lives," complained the KMA chairman, Dr Elly Nyaim.

A number of West African states have declared Ebola, which kills 90 per cent of its victims, a national health emergency. The dreaded disease has since March killed more than 1,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.

But even as pressure piled on Kenya Airways to pull out of West Africa, President Uhuru Kenyatta seemed to have backed the decision to continue plying the route when, at a prayer meeting at State House Primary School, he said the world should not shun West Africans and that the disease would be defeated.

He called on all to show commitment so the disease could be controlled. In Parliament, MPs summoned KQ to explain why they are not suspending their flights and demanded that the government makes an executive decision to stop the carrier from flying to West Africa.

"We demand that the government stops KQ forthwith," said Kajiado Central MP Joseph Nkaissery. Minority Whip Jakoyo Midiwo said that it was irresponsible and inconsiderate of Kenya Airways to continue with its flights to the Ebola-hit regions.

Tiaty MP Asman Kamama said that the disease "can wipe out an entire population" and asked Parliament to order the national carrier to stop flying the West Africa route immediately.

Endebess MP Dr Robert Pukose said that the government should also send specialists to the country's entry points outside airports. Deputy Speaker Joyce Laboso instructed that the relevant Committees table a report on the matter on Tuesday.

Korean Air, which has been operating three return flights a week from Incheon, South Korea, to JKIA, Nairobi, said they will suspend the flights as they monitor the situation.

"From August 20, flights to Nairobi will be suspended temporarily. Please stay tuned for more updates," a tweet posted by Korean Air stated. But KQ management maintained that that they have been assured by the Ministry of Health authorities in the respective countries, including Kenya, that the surveillance and screening at the airports conform to WHO guidelines.

"In conjunction with the Government of Kenya Health authorities, we shall be sending a joint Rapid Situation Assessment team to Free Town and Monrovia to assess the management protocols on the ground," KQ said.

However, KMA strongly faulted measures being undertaken by government to curb the spread of the disease, even as Parliament demanded that the government makes public all its plans on dealing with the virus.

The association called on the government to identify a place, not necessarily in government hospitals, where suitable screening services can be offered. KMA also called for an application of stringent measures to prevent any possible entry of patients infected with the deadly virus into the country.

Some of the interventions proposed by KMA include longer quarantine periods for all passengers from West Africa to prevent new infections that are still in the incubation period (which goes up to 21 days) from going undetected.

Though punitive and uncomfortable, doctors say the interventions will ensure cases of patients with the virus but who have not revealed any symptoms are detected within the stipulated time and attended to.

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