WATCH ABOVE: CDC doctor says African Ebola outbreak is “uncontrolled, but it is controllable”
TORONTO — It’s the largest and longest outbreak of one of the most vicious viruses out there. The Ebola virus is in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Guinea — and suspected cases are keeping health officials on their toes around the world.
The virus has killed nearly 1,000 people, including a handful of missionaries, and health authorities suspect the outbreak won’t be stifled anytime soon.
But they’re doing their best to monitor the epidemic’s growth and ensure that it doesn’t cross more borders. Here are five ways global health officials are responding to the outbreak.
Increased response from prominent organizations: Last Friday, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola epidemic an international public health emergency. The declaration came after two days of discussing how to respond to the outbreak health officials have been battling for months.
And the declaration isn’t used often — it’s saved for outbreaks the global health authority believes will be sticking around for a while, and with a lasting impact to the rest of the world.
A large part of the declaration is a call to action, not just in Africa but to countries that have the resources and can help. Canadian officials say that, in short, it’s a wake up call to the rest of the world to pay attention to what’s going on in this specific region.
The World Bank this week pledged up to $200 million to fight the virus. The WHO is adding another $100 million to mark a “turning point,” according to its website.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also ramped up its response to a Level 1 — the highest ranking reserved for the most severe health emergencies. In doing so, it freed up thousands of staff to shift their focus to the epidemic.
Missionaries returning home are quarantined: Two U.S. aid workers — Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol — tested positive for Ebola while working in Liberia. Since then, organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse made evacuation a key priority for all but the “most essential personnel” on the ground in West Africa.
But the precautions continue on once the missionaries return to American soil: on Sunday, health officials in North Carolina said that aid workers coming home would be placed in quarantine for three weeks — the longest incubation time for Ebola.
“This measure is being taken out of abundance of caution…,” Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County, said in a statement.
“Quarantine is a public health measure to protect the public that requires healthy people who were exposed to a disease to be prevented from contact with others until it is certain that they are not infected,” he explained.
Hospitals, airports, borders all on high alert, screening for illness: Frontline health care workers, border patrol officers and airport staff are gatekeepers in flagging potential illnesses. That’s why they’re all on high alert in screening patients with a particular set of symptoms, especially if they’ve travelled to the affected regions.
In Ontario, frontline health care workers were told to consider patients’ travel history and follow safety protocol when looking after patients.
“International travel has always been associated with potential risks,” interim chief medical officer of health Graham Pollet said.
“These situations highlight the importance of routinely asking about travel and travel activities to obtain valuable information regarding potential exposures to infectious disease,” he said.
The CDC’s emergency operation center is in full force — there are 200 staff members working on the outbreak and more than 50 experts will be in the field in West Africa.
It’s telling health facilities across the U.S. to watch for potential cases in anyone who travelled to the four countries within 21 days.
CDC health officials are even at airports to screen passengers with the help of border patrol agents, who are looking for symptoms (fever, sore throat, stomach pain, achiness).
Some airlines have thermoscans to check passengers’ temperature, too. Airline staff have probably been briefed on the symptoms of Ebola.
The warnings aren’t exclusive to North America — they’re also doled out in Vietnam and other parts of the world.
Flights into West Africa are scrapped: British Airways and Emirates are two major airlines that suspended flights to and from some parts of West Africa. Last week, British Airways canned its flights into and out of Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of August “due to the deteriorating public health situation in both countries.”
“The safety of our customers, crew and ground teams is always our top priority,” the company’s statement said.
Earlier this month, Emirates became the first international airline to scrap service to Guinea. It said “the safety of our passengers and crew is of the highest priority and will not be compromised,” in a statement.
West African airlines — specifically, Asky and Nigeria’s Arik Air — also suspended operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
But keep in mind, other airlines with routes in West Africa are carrying on: American carrier Delta Air Lines flies into Dakar, Senegal, Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria. United Airlines also flies into Lagos. Meanwhile, European carriers — Air France and Lufthansa — fly into West Africa from their major hubs.
For its part, the Public Health Agency of Canada is warning against non-essential travel to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
No visas for West African Muslim pilgrims heading to Hajj: Each year, Muslims from around the world gather in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Last April, the country said it wouldn’t issue visas this year to Muslim pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. It was a pre-emptive measure to block the potential spread of Ebola.
Amjad Bedaiwi, Saudi ambassador in Guinea, told local news outlets that the decision would affect about 7,400 pilgrims from those three countries struggling with the epidemic.
- With files from the Associated Press and the Canadian Press
© Shaw Media, 2014