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IATA asks airlines to halt isolation of Ebola-hit nations

Aug 20, 2014, 9:36 AM | Article By: Kamlesh Bhuckory

Airlines should maintain services to Ebola-hit regions which need connections with the outside world in order to fight the disease, the International Air Transport Association said today after more carriers put flights on hold.

The industry needs only to screen passengers at airports in infected areas, apply rigorous procedures including isolation when handling suspected cases, and fully disinfect planes afterward, IATA, said, citing World Health Organization advice that aviation constitutes a “low risk” for Ebola transmission.

“They have been very clear that travel and trade bans are unnecessary,” Raphael Kuuchi, IATA’s vice president for Africa, told the body’s Africa Aviation Day conference in Johannesburg. “Unless this advice changes we hope that countries working hard to eradicate Ebola continue to benefit from air connectivity.”

IATA issued the plea after Kenya Airways Ltd., Africa’s third-largest carrier, said this weekend it would stop flying to Liberia and Sierra Leone -- which together with Guinea are the focus of the Ebola outbreak -- tomorrow on the advice of the Kenyan health ministry. That’s after Korean Air Air Lines Co. (003490) said it would end flights to Nairobi on Aug. 20 because of the risk of infection spreading there via services from West Africa.

The WHO said today that in order to coordinate efforts to contain Ebola’s spread and provide timely updates to passengers it will establish a travel and transport task force also featuring the heads of IATA and other major industry bodies.

Cameroon ban

That’s after Cameroon also said Aug. 16 it would no longer allow flights from Ebola-hit states, with Public Health Minister Andre Mama Fouda saying “control has equally been tightened in all health districts, at the borders, airports and sea ports.”

Among operators closer to the Ebola outbreak, Gambia Bird, Togo-based Asky Airlines and Nigeria’s Arik Air had all earlier halted at least some flights into the area. Among top carriers, British Airways and Emirates have also scrapped services.

Yet in the four decades since Ebola was first identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the virus has never been inadvertently exported outside of Africa. A case last month in which an infected Liberian official took a flight from Monrovia to Lagos is the only known case of it spreading via air travel.

Body fluids

The disease can only be caught through direct contact with body fluids, unlike respiratory infections such as tuberculosis, with most transmission coming via care of the sick or in funeral preparation and burial ceremonies, the WHO said.

Ghana’s Transport Minister Dzifa Aku Attivor said at the South African conference that of 45 suspected Ebola cases in the country all were negative, and that it will follow WHO recommendations and continue flights to affected countries.

Brussels Airlines, the only carrier from outside Africa that serves all three Ebola-hit nations, is continuing with its usual timetable, spokeswoman Kim Daenen said today. The carrier, which provides the bulk of West African flights for Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA), a 45 percent shareholder, has consulted with the WHO and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp.

Air France (AF) said it’s maintaining flights to Sierra Leone and Guinea, while putting in place a specific Ebola plan there and in Lagos. Should a passenger exhibit symptoms on a flight they’re isolated, given a mask and must use a separate washroom.

“Ebola is a terrible disease but it is not easy to contract,” IATA’s Kuuchi said. “It can only be caught through contact with bodily fluids. It is almost impossible to be infected by someone on a flight.”

While some carriers have elected to stop serving affected nations as a precautionary measure, others may be reaching a “commercial decision” based on a decline in demand for seats to and from affected countries as news of the outbreak makes headlines around the world, he said.

The WHO-led task force will include the heads of the World Tourism Organization, Airports Council International, the United Nations-backed International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Travel & Tourism Council, as well as IATA, which has 240 airline members accounting for 84 percent of global traffic. Bloomberg.net

To contact the reporter: Kamlesh Bhuckory in Johannesburg at kbhuckory@bloomberg.net