WHO, IATA & ICAO liaise on Ebola

By Doug Newhouse |

The World Health Organization has escalated its Ebola disease response as the death toll has reached 729 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Within the last weeks Nigerian officials have confirmed that passenger screening of travellers from infected countries has been increased, after an infected individual from Liberia collapsed and died on arrival at Lagos Airport.

More broadly, the travel industry has so far reacted calmly, collectively and cautiously, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) coordinating impressively with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in respect to potential implications for air connectivity.

Right now IATA says that WHO’s risk assessment for travel and transport does not recommend any travel restrictions or closure of border points of entry. In a statement, the WHO said: “The risk of a tourist or businessman/woman becoming infected with [the] Ebola virus during a visit to the affected areas and developing disease after returning is extremely low, even if the visit included travel to the local areas from which primary cases have been reported.

“Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs, or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons, or animals – all unlikely exposures for the average traveller. Tourists are in any event advised to avoid all such contacts.”

However, some airlines have nevertheless decided to cease flying to some countries where they have particular concerns, with Emirates suspending flights for the time being to Guinea and the African carriers of Arik and ASKY stopping services to Sierra Leone.

IATA adds that it is important for travel executives to note that the transmission of the Ebola virus only occurs when patients are displaying symptoms of the disease which are severe. These symptoms include fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat; followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and at advanced stage, both internal and external bleeding. As IATA notes, it is highly ‘unlikely’ that someone suffering such symptoms would feel well enough to travel anyway.

Once again, in the rare event that a person infected with the Ebola virus was unknowingly transported by air, WHO advises that the risks to other passengers are low. Nevertheless, WHO is advising public health authorities to carry out contact tracing in such instances.

In line with WHO guidance, awareness-raising activities’ initiatives are being conducted for travellers to and from the affected region. As always, passengers are advised not to travel if they are unwell. And any traveller developing symptoms of the Ebola within three weeks of returning from an affected region is advised to seek rapid medical attention.



Dr Luis Sambo, Regional Director for Africa addressing the WHO task force in Liberia last month.


IATA adds: “The air transport industry has dealt with several outbreaks of communicable diseases in recent years. The global response to communicable diseases is governed by the WHO’s International Health Regulations. Airlines follow guidance material which has been developed by WHO, ICAO and IATA. IATA will continue to monitor developments closely in the Ebola outbreak in close coordination with the WHO and ICAO.”

Meanwhile, the WHO and the presidents of west African nations met last week in Guinea to launch a joint new $100m response plan, as part of an intensified international, regional and national campaign to try to bring the outbreak under control. [This coincided with the state of emergency declared by the Sierra Leone Government on July 31-Ed].

“The scale of the Ebola outbreak, and the persistent threat it poses, requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level, and this will require increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination,” says Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, OBE MD JP. “The countries have identified what they need, and WHO is reaching out to the international community to drive the response plan forward.”

While this threat is potentially extremely serious and has already cost hundreds of lives, there are many who will be reassured by the presence of Chan (and her team) at the helm, having previously served as Director of Health in the Hong Kong Government between 1994 to 2003 She was also the representative of the WHO Director-General for Pandemic Influenza (SARS/bird flu) and the WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases between the difficult years of 2003 to 2006.

TOP IMAGE: The World Health Organization team meets to discuss the Ebola crisis response last month.

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