20th Oct 2016

EU countries keeping wary eye on Ebola threat

  • Heathrow airport: The WHO is not recommending any travel restrictions (Photo: Khairil Zhafri)

The Ebola outbreak in west Africa could see infected people enter the EU before the virus is detected, but EU and UN experts have repeated that the risk of it spreading in Europe is “very low”.

The outbreak - in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone - has killed almost 1,100 people since February.

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The UN’s health body, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, said on Thursday (14 August) it “is expected to continue for some time” and that previous assessments “vastly underestimate the magnitude” of the problem.

Ebola is spread by direct contact with infected bodily fluids, but is not airborne, like flu.

It kills by causing multiple organ failure and has no proven cure, prompting a WHO panel to authorise the use of experimental drugs in Africa as an “extraordinary measure”.

Germany, on Wednesday, became the first EU country to urge all its citizens to leave the worst-hit areas.

The death of a 75-year old Spanish priest, who was flown home after becoming sick, in a Madrid hospital on Tuesday also raised concern that air passengers could enter Europe while the virus is still “incubating” in their bodies before developing “active” Ebola up to three weeks later.

For its part, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), an EU agency in Solna, Sweden, told EUobserver on Thursday: “The EU needs to be prepared for the very remote possibility that travellers could get Ebola and return to the EU before becoming sick or while sick”.

It noted that “it is possible that we could see limited transmission in Europe, especially among close direct contacts like family members or in healthcare settings”.

But it added: “It is very unlikely that it would spread further given the high standards of infection control procedures in Europe … Previous outbreaks caused by the same family of viruses have never spread in Europe”.

Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, also told this website: “We believe the risk [of Ebola coming to Europe] is very low because the virus does not travel well and because there are already checks in place at international airports”.

He noted that “we do not recommend any travel or trade restrictions” on the German model at this stage.

He also said that despite the absence of a proven anti-Ebola drug “we have found that if someone is brought into a care centre at an early stage and given basic supportive care [such as rest, hydration] the chances of survival are as high as 75 percent”.

The EU’s reaction to the outbreak has so far concentrated on west Africa.

The European Commission has tapped its “development” funds to buy a “mobile laboratory” in Guinea to help with treatment and diagnostics. Last week it released a further €8 million for the affected states and said it will buy a second mobile unit, most likely for Sierra Leone.

Looking closer to home, the ECDC in April published an advice leaflet in all European languages to be handed out to travellers at airports.

It is currently monitoring the African epidemic together with the WHO and publishing weekly “threat reports”.

An EU official told EUobserver the Health Security Committee (HSC), a body which brings together European Commission and member states’ experts, is meeting “regularly” to share information on the problem.

Officials said member states “are stepping up their planning for preparedness and response measures in the EU” if worst comes to worst. The potential measures include “facilitating cross-border access to appropriate laboratory hospital, transport and ambulance facilities and to other specialist advice and expertise”.

The EU’s foreign service also told this website that “co-ordination meetings have taken place in Brussels” to help see that EU citizens get coherent consular advice.

But with Germany jumping the gun on Wednesday, the foreign service noted: “since this [consular advice] is a national competence, it was agreed that each member state is issuing its own advice, while sharing information once the advice is updated or changed”.

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