New York — The United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) has allayed fears amid reports that airlines are suspending flights over the Ebola outbreak, by sending out social media messages with assurances that "unlike infections like influenza and tuberculosis, Ebola is not airborne".
"The chance of having someone who is sick with Ebola getting in a plane is small," WHO tweeted on Thursday. "Usually when someone is sick with Ebola, they are so unwell that they can't travel."
The agency, which also had a press conference providing "clarifications" on air travel, has declared the current outbreak in West Africa a public health emergency of international concern.
UN Secretary-GeneralBan Ki-moon has appointed Dr. David Nabarro as Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Ebola, in support of the work done by WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan and her team.
According to the latest WHO update, between 10 and 11 August, 128 new cases of Ebola virus disease, as well as 56 deaths, were reported from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, bringing the total number of cases to 1 975 and deaths to 1 069.
The agency said in the update that contact tracing in Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone has resulted in a range between 94 percent and 98 percent of contacts of Ebola cases being identified and followed-up, but in Liberia, efforts are underway to strengthen contact tracing, but help is needed in this area.
WHO said it was disappointed when airlines stop flying to West Africa. It is "hard to save lives if we and other health workers cannot get in," the health agency tweeted following a press conference.
"Ebola-affected countries, international airlines are putting systems in place to screen passengers for possible infection. Countries with big airports with high volumes of travellers are not the same as countries with land borders with Ebola-affected countries," WHO said.
WHO has repeatedly said the Ebola virus is highly contagious - but not airborne. Transmission requires close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, as can occur during health-care procedures, home care, or traditional burial practices, which involve the close contact of family members and friends with bodies.
The incubation period ranges from 2 to 21 days, but patients become contagious only after the onset of symptoms. As symptoms worsen, the ability to transmit the virus increases.
As a result, patients are usually most likely to infect others at a severe stage of the disease, when they are visibly, and physically, too ill to travel.
The highest Ebola virus level is found in a dead body, according to WHO, hence, currently the highest risk of Ebola transmission is during burial ceremony.
SAA continues to fly to West Africa
Meanwhile, on Thursday, South African Airways (SAA) said they would continue operating in West Africa.
The airline said the Emergency Committee of WHO on the Ebola outbreak held a meeting in Geneva from 6 - 7 August. The meeting, said SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali, concluded that there "should be no general ban on international travel or trade" to that region.
"Having noted the announcement by WHO, SAA has stepped up measures aimed at protecting its passengers, crew and ground staff," said Tlali.
SAA flies to five destinations in West Africa, namely Abidjan (Ivory Coast); Accra (Ghana); Cotonou (Benin); Dakar (Senegal) and Lagos (Nigeria).
"There is no travel ban to any of these destinations as a result of the outbreak of the virus in that region. The airline remains committed to ensuring the enforcement of international health protocols associated with air transport," said Tlali.
The measures include ensuring that the airline has in place vigilant staff that will be on the lookout for passengers who bear specific and visible symptoms associated with the Ebola virus. SAA staff is adequately trained to manage incidents of this nature, should a need to do so arise.
In cases where a passenger may bear visible symptoms associated with the infection at check-in, such passengers will be isolated from the others. This will be followed with passenger interviews and tests conducted by the health authorities in order to determine the possible cause of the symptoms.
"In the event that there is any doubt regarding the medical condition of any suspected passenger, SAA may elect to deny such passenger/s to board its aircraft.
"In cases where passengers develop symptoms after the aircraft has commenced its flight, the crew on board will initiate specific procedures that include isolating such passengers from others on board the aircraft," said Tlali.
This will eliminate possible physical interaction of affected passengers with other passengers.
Each of SAA's aircraft has been equipped with special protective gear for crew on board to wear and to enable them to respond to any passengers suspected of having been infected, or displaying the listed symptoms that include sweating, nose bleeding or vomiting.
There is also a special biohazard waste disposal kit intended for the safe disposal of waste.
SAA will remain in communication with its local health authorities and will monitor the situation on a continuous basis. This will enable the airline to constantly do risk assessment and review its decisions, should there be developments that warrant such a review.
"SAA would like to urge everyone travelling to the West African region to take the necessary precaution and be vigilant," said Tlali.
No sign of Ebola in SA
Also on Thursday, South Africa's Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi dismissed claims that the Ebola Virus Disease had arrived in South Africa.
This after the Democratic Alliance's Jack Bloem caused a public panic with claims that a lady, from Guinea, who went into labour at the Rahima Moosa Hospital, west of Johannesburg, had contracted the disease.
The Minister said the lady tested negative for the disease and there is still no sign of the disease in the country.
"She did not even have symptoms... " he said.
"We did the PCR on the lady and she is negative -- that's the normal test that the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) does for Ebola. We still took precautions... we did the serology, although it was not necessary, and it was also negative," said Minister Motsoaledi on Thursday.
The test, called DoD EZ1 Real-time RT-PCR Assay, is designed for use on individuals who have symptoms of Ebola infection, who are at risk for exposure or who may have been exposed.
He added that no one should panic because there was no reason to.