The EU needs to both double its efforts to fight the deadly virus Ebola in West Africa, as well as introduce entry screening for airline passengers to enable identification of infected passengers, Health Commissioner Tonio Borg says.
Together with Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin, today (16 October), Borg is hosting a high-level meeting in Brussels to discuss Ebola. The outbreak of the virus involves four countries – Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, and is expected to last many months. But Europe has already witnessed its first deadly cases.
Earlier this week, Germany reported that an evacuated UN nurse had died in Leipzig after receiving medical treatment in an isolation unit. Meanwhile, a Spanish nurse is also being treated after having caught Ebola from a patient who died in Madrid in August.
Borg told EU health ministers that while he believes the Europe should redouble its efforts to assist the African countries, the 28 member bloc also needs to ensure that laboratories, hospitals and public health services are ready to effectively protect citizens and stop Ebola from spreading if and when it arrives in Europe.
But other measures need to be put in place as well.
The United States has introduced additional screening measures in five International airports for travellers arriving from the affected countries, but the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has stated that screenings, from a scientific point of view, would have limited effectiveness.
“For me however, as European Commissioner for Health, every person with the virus we detect through screening is one life saved; potentially many lives saved,” Borg said. “Every person we can treat and cure because we could detect this person through entry screening justifies considering entry screening,” he added.
The Health Commissioner stressed that while its up to individual member states to decide how they wish to guard their boarders against Ebola, and that the EU tries to reduce barriers for the movement of people and goods, EU lawmakers also need to recognise the role that setting up borders can play in protecting public health.
Experts have stated that “exit screening” of outgoing airline passengers will be one of the most effective instruments to prevent Ebola from spreading.
However, exit screening cannot be considered an absolute guarantee that the disease will not be exported as the incubation period for Ebola is 21 days. Therefore, it’s possible that the symptoms appear later and the disease is transmissible only when the symptoms are manifest.
On Wednesday (15 October) the UN’s Ebola mission chief Anthony Banbury told the UN Security Council that Ebola “is winning the race”.
“If we do not get ahead of the crisis, if we do not reach our targets and the number of people with Ebola rises dramatically as some have predicted, the plan we have is not scalable to the size of such a new crisis,” he said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 4,447 people have died from the outbreak and its latest projections suggest the infection rate could reach 5,000 to 10,000 new cases a week within two months if global efforts to combat the spread of infection are not stepped up.
The Ebola epidemic, the worst since the disease was discovered in 1976, has killed more than 4,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria and has also spread to Senegal.
Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever spread through the blood, sweat or vomit of those infected, making those working directly with the sick among the most vulnerable to the disease.
The WHO believes it will take six to nine months to contain and may infect up to 20,000 people.
F14 of Liberia's 15 counties have reported confirmed cases. As soon as a new Ebola treatment centre is opened, it is immediately swamped with patients.
Liberia's government announced it was extending a nationwide nighttime curfew imposed last month to curb the spread of the disease.
There is not yet any macroeconomic analysis of Ebola's impact on West Africa, with IMF figures only indicating a modest decrease in growth for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. But NGOs on the ground describe the situation as “catastrophic”.
The first case of infection with the Ebola virus in Europe took place in Spain.
- 16 October: EU health ministers meet, Ebola on agenda;
- 20 October: EU Foreign Ministers meet, Ebola on agenda;
- 23-24 October: EU leaders meet, Ebola on agenda.
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