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Calls mount to ban commercial flights to Ebola regions

October 14, 2014 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59With a healthcare worker having just become the second person in the US to be diagnosed with Ebola, questions are being asked about the wisdom of commercial airlines continuing to fly to and from the three countries in West Africa being ravaged by the deadly disease.

The three West African countries are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The stricken American healthcare worker caught Ebola from Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen who flew to Dallas from Liberia on Brussels Airlines and United Airlines. Duncan subsequently died of Ebola in a Dallas hospital.

The US healthcare worker is the second health professional to fall sick after caring for an Ebola patient outside Africa. The first was a nurse in Spain who became ill after caring for two missionaries, who had caught Ebola in Sierra Leone and flown back to Europe. At least one of the missionaries has since died and the Spanish nurse is now gravely ill.

At present, all that is required to fly out of the Ebola “hot zone” of afflicted countries is to fill out a form saying you haven’t been in an Ebola zone or touched Ebola sufferers or dead bodies. Duncan apparently answered “no” on the form to those questions when he should truthfully have written “yes”. You also need to be checked for high temperature, or fever, at the airport.

While major US airports have now started screening passengers by taking their temperatures, the disease can take up to 21 days to incubate. Someone can be healthy when they enter a country, only to fall ill a week or two later. Authorities must then try to trace every person the victim has come into contact with.

Anyone touching a feverish sufferer of Ebola, or any of their bodily fluids, can catch the disease. The disease can also be caught by touching surfaces that have been previously touched by Ebola sufferers showing symptoms.

While medical charities and the World Health Organisation are encouraging commercial airlines to keep flying to the Ebola region so that medical personnel and supplies can get in easily, critics are asking whether it wouldn’t be better to use military flights or dedicated charters instead, carrying essential medical and administrative staff and supplies. Tourists and business travellers might have to wait, while the world launches a concerted effort to stamp Ebola out in the three countries concerned.

Several major airlines including British Airways and Emirates have acted already, suspending service to the Ebola-stricken West African region, where over 4000 people have died of the disease. Most of the public agree with the airlines’ decision to pull out, considering it a wise precaution in the face of a fatal illness that medical authorities still don’t fully understand. In a recent NBC News poll in the US, 58% of respondents said they thought all incoming flights from West African countries with Ebola should be banned.

British Airways suspended flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia in August, citing “concerns about the public health situation in both countries”. Air France ended its flights to Sierra Leone at the same time, after its staff expressed their strong concerns about flying to areas infected with Ebola.

Two airlines – Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc, Morocco’s largest airline – have continued serving Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Brussels Airlines says it has no plans to stop.

“It is our humanitarian duty to operate there,” Geert Sciot, a vice president at Brussels Airlines, told TIME magazine.

“Without our flights it would become almost impossible for medical staff to reach the country.

“It’s absolutely safe for us as an airline, for our passengers and for our crew, to operate these flights,” Sciot said.

How the decision will affect business for Brussels Airlines, a Star Alliance member, has yet to be seen. Brussels Airlines code-shares with United and Lufthansa on its West African flights.

It costs a great deal to fly from Europe to the Ebola region. Aid workers flying from London to Freetown (capital of Sierra Leone) via Belgium on Brussels Airlines are paying a minimum of GBP 1251 (AUD 2310), for a journey of 5723 kilometres (3556 miles). Britain’s Independent newspaper reported at the weekend.

Few seats available LHR to FNAOn Expedia yesterday, flights from Heathrow to Freetown were very difficult to come by. One of the few available was on 25 October 2014, had four stops (via Frankfurt and Brussels), took over 24 hours and cost AUD 2154.90 one-way, economy class.

In the meantime, the Australian government confirmed yesterday it would not send doctors or nurses to West Africa to help contain the Ebola crisis until it was certain “all of the risks are being properly managed”, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated.

Written by : Peter Needham

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