The Reporter (Addis Ababa)

16 August 2014

Ethiopia Braces for Ebola Treatment

Photo: Vanguard
A doctor preparing to treat patients diagnosed with Ebola in Nigeria.

A new Ebola treatment hospital with ten beds, and with the possible expansion to 50 beds, has already been set and equipped with medical staffs, Dr. Keseteberhan Admassu, Minister of Health told reporters on Thursday.

The facility is designed to treat Ebola - for which there are no observed cases in Ethiopia to date - in isolation.

He noted that for contingency purposes, some 20 doctors and nurses are on standby and some are stationed at the airports to examine suspicious cases of Ebola. However, the minister said that Ebola is not at a state of emergency for Ethiopia currently and banning flights to and from West Africa is unnecessary. The minister also denied reports of two suspicious Ebola cases (one Chinese and the other Nigerian) as they were verified to be malaria patients.

So far, the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) has killed more than 1,000 in West Africa and the spiraling spread of the virus alerted the African Union Commission (AUC) into approving the use of what is dubbed "investigational medical interventions" by the World Health Organization (WHO) in affected countries.

During a press conference held on Wednesday at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, representatives of the AU and WHO told reporters that drugs and experimental vaccines so far have not yet been fully evaluated for safety and efficacy on human beings. However, the large number of people affected by the outbreak in West Africa and the high case fatality rate, promoted to use investigational medical interventions to save lives and curb the epidemic, they said. It was confirmed that ZMAPP - the experimental drug still being tested by institutes in the US - is heading to those affected in West Africa.

Mustapha Kaloko, AU commissioner for social affairs together with Pierre M'pele Kilebou, WHO representative, said that the experimental vaccines and treatments and other remedial measures are well under progress following a consultation held on Monday by WHO over the ethical implications of the use of unregistered interventions.

The commissioner argued that one of the fertile grounds for the spread of Ebola, first from Guinea to Serra Leone, Liberia and then to Nigeria, is the loose cross border movements across these countries. On the other side, it has become high time for AU member states to realize economic integrations via opening up borders for cross-boarder trade and investments. But unchecked cross-border relations have caused Ebola to spread quickly, Mustapha argued.

He mentioned that countries like Botswana have started to contribute financially and in personnel. The intergovernmental health organization WHO has stated that some 200 staffs have been deployed to countries at risk. Some of the weak points the two officials mentioned were weakened and poor medical institutions in West Africa, which made ways for Ebola to become a concern even for the international community. It is to be remembered that WHO declared last week that Ebola has reached a state of Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Both AU and WHO officials warned that the kill rate of Ebola is feared to reach 100 percent if efforts are not seriously delivered.

The commission admitted that interventions were weak since the outbreak was expected to be small and easy to control; yet Ebola spiraled. However, AU has contributed USD one million and WHO has availed USD 100 million additional funding for additional personnel and facility supplies. AU's medical services directorate has advised individuals to limit travels and direct contact with suspected patients and dead bodies. Since Friday, the deaths toll has reached 1,069 and 1,800 cases have been confirmed for the Ebola virus so far.

Making matters worse, recent reports of the WHO stated that neighboring Kenya is at high risk for Ebola following its dominance in flight routes from West Africa. Kenya handles some 700 in and out flights to and from West Africa. Other reports suggested that affected countries would soon be challenged by economic pressures. On Friday, the International Youth Olympic Committee banned athletes from the Ebola-hit countries from taking part in sporting events taking place in China from August 15 to 18, 2014.

Despite the EVD outbreak and unprecedented number of deaths, the AU is set to hold the upcoming Ouagadougou Extraordinary Summit scheduled to be hosted by Burkina Faso from August 26 to September 7. It has also been in the AU's plan that a pledge conference for Ebola will be held during the summit.

In related news, Ethiopian Airlines is pursuing the usual flights into West Africa, yet it has stated that it has no direct flights to most affected nations, so far. Ethiopian officials told The Reporter that the virus has no chance of infecting passengers on-board Ethiopian flights. However, according to the health minister, currently Ethiopian transports some 500 passengers from four Nigerian cities per day. "The virus has an incubation period of 21 days during which time the person could shows no signs of illness and cannot transmit the disease," the statement reads. Despite low risks, Ethiopian is said to be training front line staff on Ebola and is screening passengers from West Africa thoroughly at the moment. Ethiopian affiliate, Asky airline, said that it has suspended flights to and from Sierra Leone and Liberia due to an increasing concern with the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in the region.

The Togo-based airline also said it would no longer take on food in Guinea, where the outbreak was first detected in March, and that medical teams would be deployed to screen passengers in transit through its Lome hub.

The pan African airline operates 22 destinations in west and central Africa. It feeds passengers to Ethiopian Airlines.

Ed.'s Note: Kaleyesus Bekele has contributed to this report.

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