GENEVA: Europe said on Thursday (Oct 16) it will review how passengers leaving Ebola-hit African countries are screened for infection, as it seeks to contain the escalating spread of a virus recognised as the worst global health emergency in years.
The World Health Organisation also said it was ramping up its efforts to help 15 African countries defend themselves against the virus.
The European Commission “will immediately undertake an audit of exit screening systems in place in the affected countries … to check their effectiveness and reinforce them as necessary,” the bloc’s health commissioner, Tonio Borg, said.
EU health ministers meeting in Brussels also agreed to coordinate measures at entry points to the European Union, although any decision on screening for Ebola rests with individual European countries.
The review of the exit screening in the hardest-hit countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone will be conducted in coordination with the WHO, Borg said.
A string of health workers have been evacuated back to Europe from Africa with Ebola, but the only recorded case of transmission on the continent so far is a Spanish nurse in Madrid.
As of Sunday, 4,493 people had died out of a total of 8,997 cases in the outbreak, according to WHO. The haemorrhagic virus has ravaged the three west African countries since the start of the year, and outside the region, cases have begun surfacing in the United States and Spain.
WHO has warned that the infection rate could reach 10,000 a week by early December in a worst-case scenario.
US President Barack Obama on Wednesday called on the world to do more, while insisting his own country would be “much more aggressive” in its response, after a second Texas hospital worker tested positive for the disease.
The alarming fact that the infected Dallas caregiver took a domestic flight the day before she was quarantined magnified global fears about air travel.
Obama tried to ease those fears, but urged his counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Italy to better coordinate their plans to combat the outbreak.
WORST GLOBAL HEALTH EMERGENCY
“Leaders agreed that this was the most serious international public health emergency in recent years and that the international community needed to do much more and faster,” British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said.
Africa also needs to raise its game in the fight against Ebola, a top official there said. “We have to do more as a continent to mobilise human resources,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the African Union Commission.
She said many countries had pledged help with hospitals and treatment centres but offered too few human resources. “If the infrastructure is built, it will need human beings, health workers,” she said.
WHO, meanwhile, said it was stepping up efforts to help the four African countries bordering Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia improve their preparedness to fight the virus. Eleven other African countries had also been singled out for special assistance.
“We need to make sure it doesn’t spread to other countries,” Isabelle Nuttall, head of WHO’s alert and response arm, told reporters in Geneva.
France said on Thursday it will start carrying out health checks this weekend on all travellers arriving by plane from Guinea, one of the worst-hit nations. Airports in Britain, Canada and the United States have already introduced stepped-up screening of travellers arriving from West Africa.
Map showing airports where passengers are checked for sign of Ebola.
Senior US lawmakers overseeing homeland security also joined calls Wednesday for a temporary ban on all travel from west Africa.
While WHO recommends exit screening of passengers from the badly affected countries, it does not recommend entry screening, although the organisation does not oppose such screening either, Nuttall said.
FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY
She cautioned that such screening does not detect infected passengers who have not yet developed symptoms, warning they could “give a sense of false security”.
But as the world scrambles to rein in the raging virus, UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautioned Thursday that respect for the rights of survivors and affected communities risked being sacrificed.
The Red Cross also urged the international community to focus less on dramatic actions like shutting down airports and entire countries and more on engaging with populations to alter behaviours, such as unsafe burials, that allow the outbreak to swell.
Nuttall also insisted the main focus needed to be on halting the epidemic where it was raging out of control. “The problem of Ebola is in three countries in Africa … We need to bend the curb in these three countries,” she said.
Meanwhile, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an alert for all passengers who travelled on an Oct 13 flight from Cleveland, Ohio to Texas.
Authorities want to interview 132 people who flew on a plane with an Ebola-infected nurse – the second American to be infected within the United States – who had not yet become fully symptomatic.
CDC chief Thomas Frieden said the case was “very concerning”, warning health workers who have been exposed to Ebola patients should not use public transport.
Since Ebola does not spread until symptoms appear, WHO does not recommend isolating asymptomatic health workers who have had contact with Ebola patients, Nuttall said, adding that they should monitor their temperatures and immediately isolate themselves if they spot symptoms.