Europe won’t follow U.S. in screening for ebola at airports

October 9, 2014, 12:59 PM UTC
Liberia Races To Expand Ebola Treatment Facilities
MONROVIA, LIBERIA - OCTOBER 02: A health worker watches as a burial team collects Ebola victims from a Ministry of Health treatment center for cremation on October 2, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. Eight Liberian Red Cross burial teams under contract with the country's Ministry of Health collect the bodies of Ebola victims each day in the capital. More than 3,200 people have died in West Africa due to the epidemic. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Photograph by John Moore — Getty Images

Europe isn’t planning to follow the U.S. in screening people for Ebola at airports, officials say, relying instead on their own health systems to isolate and stop the spread of the deadly virus as and when it appears.

The U.S. broke ranks with the rest of the world Wednesday, saying that it would screen all passengers arriving from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea–the three west African countries worst hit by the epidemic–at the five airports which handle flights between them and the U.S..

That announcement came only hours after the first person to be diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. died in a Texas hospital.

But in Europe, there’s little enthusiasm for screening, which authorities say would be ineffective and disruptive–a view that’s backed by the U.N.-sponsored World Health Organization. The WHO and national health authorities in the three affected countries already screen airline passengers as they leave west Africa.

Air France and British Airways have already suspended flights to the destinations they deem most risky–the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown and the Liberian capital of Monrovia. But, Air France is still flying to Conakry in Guinea and both airlines are still serving destinations in Nigeria, which has also reported Ebola cases.

That leaves Brussels Airlines as the only European airline still operating normally in the region. Geert Sciot, a spokesman for the company, said Thursday that “all the health authorities of the countries concerned and the WHO and World Aviation Authority confirm that it safe for us to do so.”

The WHO is anxious to avoid any attempt to quarantine whole countries by shutting down air links completely. For one thing, it’s not clear how the increasing flow of aid workers to and from the region would survive.

Sciot warned that many volunteers would leave overnight if they could no longer count on getting out through a regular link.

Some countries, such as Germany, are counting on military flights to transport aid workers, a spokeswoman for the Berlin government said.

Even Brussels Airlines isn’t letting its staff stay overnight in the three countries any more, as it couldn’t send them to local hospitals if they fell ill with other illnesses such as malaria, Sciot said.

People can carry Ebola for up to 21 days before they start showing symptoms of the disease. For that reason alone, the WHO says it’s “inevitable” that there will be further cases of Ebola outside Africa. As a result, European countries have focused so far on preparing their own health systems to deal with cases as they happen.

“U.K. hospitals have a proven record of dealing with imported infectious diseases,” Brian McCloskey, director of Public Health England, said in a statement on a government website. “If an Ebola case is repatriated to, or detected in, the U.K. they would receive appropriate treatment in an isolation unit, with all appropriate protocols promptly activated.”

But there already signs elsewhere that that approach may not be fool-proof.

Teresa Romero Ramos, a Spanish nurse, contracted Ebola in the Carlos III hospital in Madrid where she had been treating patients evacuated from west Africa, and was only isolated after the third time she complained about feeling ill, according to media reports. Staff have complained that they weren’t given enough training before having to treat patients. The hospital has now quarantined six people and is monitoring another 84.

The World Bank estimated Wednesday that the virus could cost West Africa, one of the poorest regions on earth, over $32 billion in lost output.