This Day (Lagos)

24 August 2014

West Africa: Ebola Virus Puts West Africa's Shipping Trade Under Threat

With the ravaging case of Ebola in West Africa, shipping trade in the region appears to be under threat following reports that shipping lines are considering boycotting countries with the deadly virus.

The Ebola virus which is currently a health menace in West African countries is also threatening every aspect of life. The shipping sector in the region is not left out. Multi-national shipping agencies, big time bulk and container carriers are all becoming apprehensive of the ravaging disease in West Africa. Already, there is growing fear that the shipping lines may boycott West African ports until there is an end at sight for the ebola disease. The implication of this could be very devastating to everyone, including government, agencies of government, importers, exporters, freight forwarders, among others. The threat is coming despite measures being put in place to check the spread of ebola virus. Last week, reports had it that some of the multinational shipping line have already suspended shore leave and crew change in Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leon and Guinea. This followed advice from the P&I Clubs about the high risk of being infected with ebola in some of these countries. Then in the ports and border posts, there is equally unease about the disease. In response, government agencies at the ports and border stations have all adopted measures to check the spread of the disease. But these measures may not be convincing enough for the multinational shipping lines on trade mission to Nigeria and other West African countries.

Genesis of Ebola Virus Health experts say that ebola disease may be acquired through blood or bodily fluids of an infected animal, such as monkeys and fruit bats. The fear that it can spread through air is yet to be ascertained. However, expert say that once "human infection occurs, the disease may spread between people as well". World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that there are 2,240 cases of Ebola virus in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. In Nigeria, there are about 200 cases as at the time of writing this report. Of this number, Lagos takes the lion share of about 90 percent of the disease. However, the Minister of Information, Labaran Maku disclosed recently that all those who had primary contacts of the deadly Ebola virus had been quarantined, while those with secondary contacts had also been traced. The disease is on rampage in Liberia where late Patrick Sawyer imported it into Nigeria knowingly. He had been diagnosed of the disease after his sister died of the virus. He had been quarantined, but he escaped to Nigeria. Government and some other people have described the action of late Sawyer as madness and acts of terrorism.

Caution, Threat by Shipping Lines Following the outbreak of Ebola virus in Liberia and its spread, the global shipping community issued what it called guidance to members on the risks posed to ships' crews calling in countries affected by the Ebola virus. Among the agencies that reacted with immediate measures were the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS, International Maritime Employers' Council (IME), and the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). The agencies advised that Master of vessels calling in West Africa should ensure that the crew are aware of the risks, how the virus can be spread an how to reduce the risk Other measures include: *The ISPS requirements on ensuring that unauthorised personnel do not board the vessel should be strictly enforced throughout the duration of the vessel being in port; * The Master should give careful consideration to granting any shore leave whilst in impacted ports; *The shipowner/operator should avoid making crew changes in the ports of an affected country; * After departure the crew should be aware of the symptoms and report any occurring symptoms immediately to the person in charge of medical care. The advice issued by the agencies was based on the information from the WHO on how the virus could be checked from spreading.

In a press statement, a spokesperson for the three organisations whose name was not mentioned said, "everyone is deeply concerned for those suffering from the Ebola epidemic and supportive of a coordinated world response to help them. We particularly applaud all those medical staff who are risking their lives to help. In the meantime we want to make sure that those in the world shipping industry play our part in ensuring the safety of crews visiting the affected countries, and minimising the risk of the virus spreading further."

However, a major shipping line, Maersk Line made it clear that it does not feel threatened by the virus and therefore will not stop calling at the West African ports because of the ebola virus like some of the shipping were contemplating. But the giant shipping line said it would all the same suspend shore leave and crew changes in affected countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. Incidentally, the latest warning on the shipping companies was not the first time. They had been warned early this year, precisely in March 26 this year, a Maersk spokesperson was reported saying. According to the report, "We have been following the situation for some time and sent out our first advisory to vessels calling at West African ports on 26 March. We have subsequently sent out several updates - to crews and land-based personnel - outlining additional health measures as per the WHO recommendations."

Measures by Ports Agencies Worried about the reported spread of the Ebola virus, and the threat by the international shipping companies, government agencies in the ports, associations of freight forwarders have been creating awareness on how to check the disease from spreading. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) following the outbreak of the disease last week issued a statement on the risk involved as a result of the disease.

Managing Director of NPA, Malam Habib Abdullahi, advised port operators against being negligent when dealing with foreigners and vulnerable groups because of the disease. While expressing concern over those who already have the disease, Abdullahi said that the NPA would ensure that port facilities were free of the virus. Among the measures which he said have been put in place include awareness campaign about "the origin, symptoms, mode of spread, identifying people at high risk, diagnosis, containment and prevention of the infection". As a follow up, the Medical Department has advised staff and port users on preventive measures against the disease. A number of other precautionary measures in the terminals will be implemented with the Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Division of the authority and the Port Health Department. Such measures, the authority said were in line with those recommended by the WHO.

Customs, Terminal Operators, Freight Forwarders Apart from the NPA, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has also adopted similar measures to safeguard personnel from contacting the disease. Among the measure is to avoid personal contact, shaking of hands among officers or those they come in contact with while inside the terminal for goods examination. This is also the same measure adopted by staff of terminal operators who have regular interface with personnel of shipping lines that bring goods into the country. On the other hand, associations freight forwarders who have been educating members of preventive measures expressed concern about the level of preventive measures put in place by either NPA and terminal operators inside the ports. National President of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Eugene Nweke was that there was no provision for public water system, toilet where one can clean up. He called on all agencies of government and terminal operators to come together and introduce standard preventive measures against Ebola disease. On the fear of shipping lines coming into the country's ports because of the disease, Nweke said that ports operators were equally apprehensive of the shipping lines coming with the disease into the country in view of the fact that the first person that imported the disease into the country came through the airport.

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