Ebola: Australia’s unjustified ban


Ebola Virus - Wikimedia Commons

Australia gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first nation to ban the entry of people from the Ebola-hit countries. – Photo: NIAID

On Tuesday, Australia became the first developed country to ban travel from the three Ebola-hit West African countries — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

It has decided to cancel all non-permanent or temporary visas held by people from the three Ebola-stricken countries who were yet to travel and not process new visa applications. Permanent visa holders who are yet to arrive in Australia are required to undergo a 21-day quarantine process before travelling to Australia. “The government’s systems and processes are working to protect Australians,” the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told parliament.

But what the minister failed to reveal is that the ban totally disregards the WHO recommendations. According to the WHO, travel restrictions can be imposed only for those with Ebola virus disease and people who had direct contact with Ebola patients.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the decision saying that travel restrictions will severely curtail efforts to beat Ebola. Sierra Leone’s Information Minister Alpha Kanu told Reuters that Australia’s move was discriminatory. “It is not (going) after Ebola but rather it is … against the 24 million citizens of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea…Certainly, it is not the right way to go.”

Tom Frieden, Director of CDC had in an article in Fox News said: “A travel ban is not the right answer.  It’s simply not feasible to build a wall — virtual or real — around a community, city, or country. A travel ban would essentially quarantine the more than 22 million people that make up the combined population of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.”

Contrary to the fears expressed by the Australian authorities, a paper published on October 21 in The Lancet clearly indicates that there is less likelihood of people from the three African countries travelling to developed countries. According to Dr Jeannette Young, the Queensland’s chief health officer, the number of people from the three Ebola-affected countries in West Africa who have reached Australia is more than 800..

According to the study, as of September 1, 2014, as a result of restrictions on travel to and from the three affected countries and epidemic conditions, the number of people flying out of the three countries each month is just 2.8.

Of the 2.8 travellers flying out of the three countries, 64 per cent of all the passengers from these countries are expected to travel to low-income and lower-middle income countries. Not one of them is expected to travel to developed countries.

The study provides a snapshot of the slim possibility of people from the three countries flying out to Australia. Even if the numbers are indeed high, the exit screening at the airports in Ebola-hit countries can easily identify people with symptoms. It is to be remembered that people not exhibiting symptoms do not transmit the virus to others. Hence the risk of getting infected is nil when the person is asymptomatic.

The screening on arrival can further help in identifying people with the symptoms. And daily monitoring of others from the three countries for a period of 21 days will help in preventing the spread of the disease.

If the person suddenly shows symptoms while travelling, the possibility of co-passengers getting infected is low. Unlike airborne diseases, a person can get infected with Ebola only if he comes in direct contact with the body fluids of the diseased person.

Even when the person exhibits Ebola disease while flying, “only passengers who were seated adjacent to the index case on the side, in front or behind, including across an aisle, should be included in contact tracing” notes WHO. All these clearly indicate that the ban is not grounded on science or sound public health advice.

Another retrograde step taken by Australia is its decision not to send any doctors to fight the Ebola disease at the source. At a time when WHO has indicated that over 5,000 health care workers are required to bring the situation under control, Australia had decided that it would not be a party to the big global effort.

It would be “very, very difficult to safely send a team of Australian doctors to West Africa to fight Ebola,” Dr. Young told The Australian. “It would be very, very difficult to safely send a team to West Africa because of the distance to bring someone back … I actually think our responsibility is to our sphere of the world.”

Published in The Hindu on October 30, 2014