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Update: Travel trade on alert as ebola spreads

  • International trade facing new restrictions on free movement
  • More than half of Americans want ban on flights from West Africa

The worst health scare in a generation threatens to disrupt international travel and even impose restrictions on global trade.

Airlines and airports are used to being forced to take emergency measures against threats of terror attacks and climatic events such as the volcanic eruption in Iceland. But deadly infectious diseases are arguably the biggest challenge. They put the international travel industry at the focal point of world health concerns.

Nobody knows how the ebola virus might spread and what impact it will have but more controls on travel in affected countries are inevitable.

Scottish airports are so far operating normally but the latest developments on screening in the US and warnings that it is only a matter of time before the UK has its first victims will force health and transport authorities to work ever closer together.

Five US airports in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington have begun testing suspected passengers. Some 150 travellers a day arrive in the US from the affected countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Half use JFK in New York.

Several major airlines including British Airways and Emirates have already suspended flights to ebola-stricken regions of West Africa. According to Time magazine 58% of people polled by NBC News want to ban all flights to the US from West African countries affected by ebola. With new outbreaks of the disease in Spain and the US there are concerns that it might be difficult to contain the spread of the disease.

Despite this growing anxiety a number of airlines continue to fly to the region. Medical workers need to get there and aid workers fear being stranded and the World Health Organisation is among a number of groups which have asked airlines to continue flying to West Africa. Airlines have responded by ensuring greater safeguards for their crew which include bans on staying overnight in sensitive locations.

It is imperative not to cause alarm or panic, but the situation has worsened rapidly in recent weeks. By Sunday night there were 4,033 reported deaths.

Screening is taking place at airports in the affected countries and so far 77 people out of 36,000 tested have been denied travel. None was found to have the disease. One problem is that there is a three-week incubation period before sufferers develop ebola.

It might be better to demand that all those wanting to leave the affected regions are first required to register their intention to travel, then insist they are prevented from departing for 21 days. However, there is a growing debate about the legitimacy of effectively quarantining citizens who have no signs of illness and have a right to go about their business.

The UK is taking measures to make itself ready for any outbreak hitting these shores. Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer who is advising Westminster, said that Britain could expect a handful of cases. That has to be taken on trust and no one really knows to what extent ebloa might spread.

Her comments followed a number of exercises at hospitals and ahead of a programme of screening that will be introduced this week at Gatwick and Heathrow airports, and the Eurostar rail terminal. Critics say such measures are a waste of time or political gestures by the authorities who are keen to be seen doing something to calm the public.

A photograph that appeared last week of a group of medical workers in hazmat suits boarding a US Airways plane will only add to concerns. They were brought on board a flight from Philadelphia when it landed in the Dominican Republic after a passenger said he had the disease. It turned out to be a sick joke.

Then came news from Dallas this weekend that a health worker caught the infection despite wearing a protective suit.

The response by worried officials shows how seriously the ebola outbreak is being treated worldwide. Travellers already exposed to extensive security measures against terror attacks can expect more restrictions and precautionary measures until the bug is beaten and it may not be long before such measures are commonplace.

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