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First US Ebola victim flew Star Alliance out of Africa

October 3, 2014 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Shivers ran through the international travel industry yesterday with the disclosure that the first person to be diagnosed in the United States with the deadly disease Ebola had flown there from Liberia in West Africa, where the disease is raging.

The man, now in hospital in Dallas, Texas, in “serious but stable” condition, flew Brussels Airlines to Belgium, then United Airlines to Washington DC and on United again to Dallas, with lengthy layovers at intermediate points. Texas health authorities are now trying to trace 80 people who may have been in contact with him.

The ease with which people can fly around the world from Ebola-afflicted regions has spooked airline investors and is worrying the tourism industry, despite repeated assurances that there is no need to panic. Shares in United and other leading US carriers dropped 2.8% or more yesterday as investors dumped stock, CBS reported. Shares in European carriers fell by similar margins.

Nothing dampens enthusiasm for travel like the threat of a lethal and largely untreatable disease.

News also arrived yesterday of another possible Ebola victim in hospital in Hawaii. Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, kills about 50% of all who catch it, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Ebola is contagious only when sufferers are showing symptoms, at which time it becomes highly infectious and can be caught by touching the body or bodily fluids of the victim.

The disease can also be caught second-hand – by touching something a sufferer has touched. Because the Ebola virus can survive on a surface for at least several days, it can be transmitted by inanimate objects that have been touched by a feverish victim. Thus, “motorbike-taxis and regular taxis have become ‘a hot source’ of Ebola transmission” in Liberia, Reuters reported on 9 September 2014.

Questions are being asked about air travel. “Why hasn’t the US closed its airports to travellers from Ebola-ravaged countries?” a headline in the Washington Post asked yesterday.

Medical authorities say there is no danger of passengers falling ill from having flown with the US-diagnosed Ebola victim, who is now in hospital in Dallas (and has been identified as Thomas Eric Duncan, a citizen of Liberia) because he had no symptoms at the time he flew.

But as the Washington Post pointed out: “With every connecting flight carrying passengers who have recently been in the Ebola-ravaged countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea or Liberia, the chances of another exportation increase.”

Passengers flying out of Liberia must fill in a public health form at the airport declaring whether they have  touched an Ebola patient or the body of anyone who has died in an area affected by Ebola. Duncan wrote “no” to questions to which he should truthfully have written “yes”. By simply writing “no” he was allowed on the flight. Liberia plans to prosecute him.

Brussels Airlines stated: 

The WHO and the International Civil Aviation Authorities specifically asked and encouraged Brussels Airlines to continue its flight services to the Ebola-stricken countries in order to assist these countries in their efforts to fight the virus  – especially as the risk of contamination is extremely low because it is almost, if not completely, impossible for a passenger with illness symptoms to travel.”

In Dallas yesterday, parents were reportedly rushing to fetch their children from school after learning that five students may have come into contact with Duncan in a Dallas hospital.

Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zachary Thompson told the Dallas Star-Telegram that county officials initially suspected 12 to 18 people may have had contact with Duncan. The figure later grew to 80.

An outbreak of SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – in 2003 hit air travel hard in Asia. Analysts are concerned that people may be even more reluctant to travel if they suspect Ebola is on the loose.

In airports around the world, passengers arriving on flights from West Africa are being screened for high temperatures.

Air travel is how the disease reached Nigeria, when an infected passenger flew from Liberia to Lagos, Africa’s most populous city, and infected others there before dying. Now air travel has brought it to America.

Ebola has an incubation period of up to 21 days. No cure or vaccine is currently available although some experimental drugs, such a ZMapp, are showing promise. Heath professionals and US Army experts, in Africa battling the disease, hope eventually to bring it under control. This is the biggest outbreak of Ebola ever recorded.

Written by Peter Needham

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