Aviation and Ebola

This morning, 31 July 2014, on the radio, there was a discussion whether the Ebola outbreak in Africa could get to Europe by air.

The question posed to the spokesman of the World Health Organisation, Gregory Hartl, was whether the Ebola outbreak in Africa could possibly get to Europe. He believed that this was very unlikely, citing the fact that in Africa the disease is affecting people who cannot afford to fly. On the teletext there is a similar opinion from Peter Piot, the professor who co-discovered the virus in 1976, though he did suggest that vaccines which have shown promise when tested on animals should be tested on humans in the affected regions.

I find the reasoning of Gregory Hartl to be simplistic, rather elitist and not confronting all possibilities. It is also the case that other countries, particularly the USA and Britain, plus the epidemiologists of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) are taking things very seriously. In fact, the edition of the Daily Telegraph devoted an entire page to the subject, stating that the Government emergency committee COBRA had discussed how to tighten the country's defences against the virus. Even today there is a story about an asylum seeker from Liberia being suspected of carrying the Ebola virus.


Although virtually all of the people currently affected are indeed poor, the low-cost airline industry is increasingly proposing flights at lower and lower costs. In any case the disease can also affect people who are not poor: one victim was an American doctor from Minnesota who had taken two flights in Africa before succumbing in Nigeria: anyone on either of these two flights could have been in contact with him.

It is also possible to believe that if the disease had not been confined (until now) to very poor people, there would have been an intense effort to develop medicines against Ebola. Unfortunately, until now there would have been very little financial interest in such research efforts.

Another worry, which countries will probably have considered, is that of a terrorist attack using someone already having contracted the disease, perhaps intentionally, but at a relatively early stage, coming as the equivalent of a suicide bomber.

The US is also particularly concerned, as is shown by the remarks of John O'Connor, spokesman for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to highlighting the need for countries across the globe to increase health security, he was quoted as saying

"It's true that anyone with an illness is just one plane ride away from coming to the US"

It would be nice to think that Switzerland is actually taking the outbreak seriously, with emergency plans, and that all Swiss airports which may receive passengers from countries where the disease has been reported are putting into place all possible precautions. It is better to be wrong in taking the threat seriously than to be wrong in not taking it seriously!


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