News / Health

WHO: Ebola Unlikely to Spread on Airplanes

A health worker takes a passenger's temperature with an infrared digital laser thermometer at the Felix Houphouet Boigny international airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Aug. 13, 2014.
A health worker takes a passenger's temperature with an infrared digital laser thermometer at the Felix Houphouet Boigny international airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Aug. 13, 2014.
Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization says it does not recommend a ban on air travel to and from Ebola affected countries in West Africa. The U.N. health agency says the risk of spread of the deadly disease in an airplane is extremely low.

Korean Air announced Thursday it would suspend air travel to Kenya as of August 20 as a measure to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. The first airline to take similar action was the Dubai carrier Emirates, which suspended air travel to Guinea on August 2.

The World Health Organization does not endorse a ban on travel or trade. It says air travel even from Ebola affected countries poses an extremely low risk of transmission of the disease.

WHO Director of Alert and Response, Isabelle Nuttal, said Ebola was not airborne like Influenza or tuberculosis.  She said the Ebola infection was passed on only through direct contact with a sick person's body fluid, such as blood, vomit, sweat or diarrhea.

"On the small chance that someone is sick on a plane, the likelihood of other passengers and crew contact with their body fluids is even smaller," she said. "A person infected with Ebola…this person can transmit the disease to another one only if he or she has the symptom of a disease - fever, vomiting, diarrhea.  A person that has no sign of the disease is not contagious, is not transmitting the disease to others."

Nuttal said usually people, who are sick with Ebola, felt so unwell they could not travel.  Therefore, she said WHO was advising against travel bans to and from affected countries.

Centers for Disease Control, stages of Ebola virus
Centers for Disease Control, stages of Ebola virus

West Africa is in the grips of the worst Ebola epidemic on record. More than 1,800 people are infected with the disease and more than 1,000 have died, most in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nigeria reports nine cases and two deaths. One person who died flew to Lagos from Monrovia, Liberia.

But, that person was allowed on the plane before WHO declared Ebola an International Public Health Emergency.  Nuttal said WHO recommended that airlines screen passengers going to or coming from Ebola-affected countries before allowing them to board the plane.

"They need to be able and prepared to detect, investigate, as they would do, generally speaking all year long any disease that may occur. This is the purpose of international health regulations - ensure that all countries do have the capacity to detect any event, that is something serious, severe…and able to immediately provide adequate treatment for that person," she said.

If someone was confirmed to have Ebola, she said that person would have to be isolated.

The World Health Organization says the perceived risk of catching Ebola is quite different from the real risk, which is very low. It says countries should carefully balance these risks before considering a travel ban. It says such bans have a bad economic impact on the travel and trade of targeted countries and are unwarranted.

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