'Ebola is real. Ebola is contagious. And Ebola kills,' said Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf. As West Africa grapples with the virus, global health officials call for a measured response.
Fear is now spreading in Nigeria following the first fatal case of Ebola in the city of Lagos. "My parents, who don't live in the city, phoned up," one Lagos resident told DW. "They were very worried and told me I should wear protective gloves and a face mask. I am going to do that."
Will it be possible to stop the spread of the virus in West Africa? Not all residents of Lagos, where Nigeria's first Ebola fatality was registered last Friday (25.07.2014), have resorted to drastic precautionary measures.
Two regional airlines have suspended flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has ordered the closure of her country's borders - apart from a few exceptions - in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading any further. She has also shut down all schools and put non-essential government workers on leave. Communities affected by the outbreak are to be quarantined with travel restrictions. One Liberian told DW's Monrovia correspondent Julius Kanubah he thought the measures were "in the right direction." But a woman was unconvinced. "We don't know who is travelling with the disease and there are not many testing centers for finding out who is infected," she said.
Sheik Umar Khan, 39, a leading doctor on hemorrhagic fevers, was to be buried on Thursday (31.07.2014)
The epidemic originated in Guinea in February 2014. In the following weeks and months it spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia and has now reached Nigeria. More than 720 people have died so far according to figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday. There is neither a vaccine nor specific treatment for Ebola, which has a fatality rate of between 60 and 90 percent.
Sierra Leonean Ebola specialist Sheik Umar Khan died of the disease himself on Tuesday (29.07.2014) and the country's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has declared a state of emergency. He ordered police and military to restrict the movement of people to and from the epicenters of the disease. The security forces would also provide support to health officers and NGOs, following a number of attacks on health workers. House-to-house searches would be implemented to trace Ebola victims and quarantine them.
Tracing contacts key to containing the disease
Health experts doubt whether the virus can be contained by shutting borders or grounding planes. Such measures do not make much sense, according WHO's Gregory Härtl. "Why should we close the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone or between Liberia and Guinea? The virus is already present in those countries," he told DW. It is more important to monitor the borders and identify potential Ebola cases. "We have to trace the people a particular person has been in contact with. It's real detective work. It is already being done, but more staff are needed on the ground," Härtl said.
The Nigerian airline Arik Air and the pan-African carrier ASKY are no longer flying to Liberia or Sierra Leone. The WHO said it does not wish to judge whether the suspension of all flights is justified, but it would not advise such drastic measures. "Any obstruction to travel and commerce should be kept to a minimum," Härtl said. The WHO is drawing up recommendations for countries seeking to stop the spread of Ebola by air travel.
Heat-sensitive cameras spot air passengers with a temperature
There are alternatives to trying to seal a country off. Planes from ASKY are still landing at Conackry, capital of Guinea. Balam Michel, the airline's representative in the city, told DW he was satisfied with the safety precautions and was not worried. The airport is equipped with heat-sensitive cameras which can detect passengers suffering from a temperature. An emergency medical team is nearby "and if a passenger displays symptoms of Ebola or a fever, he is whisked away to a care facility to determine whether or not he is suffering from Ebola," Michel said.
Precautions are also being taken Kenya in East Africa, more than seven thousand kilometers (4,350 miles) away from Guinea. Mohammed Karama from the Kenya Medical Research Institute told DW that the Kenya Airways airline had decided to examine all passengers from the affected countries for symptoms of Ebola before they board an aircraft. "The health minister has called on all entry points, airports, ports and borders to identify people showing symptoms and trace their contacts," he said.
The WHO said learning to recognize the symptoms of the disease is the most important step towards preventing it from spreading any further. "We are working together with the neighbors of the affected countries and are preparing them," Härtl said. Close coordination with medical personnel from the affected countries was vital. A coordination center for the fight against Ebola in West Africa was opened in Conackry last week.