African leaders push for end to Ebola travel ban amid fears of ‘thousands’ of new infections
Addis Ababa (AFP) – African Union chiefs called Monday for travel bans imposed to stem the deadly Ebola epidemic to be lifted, even as World Health Organization warned of “many thousands” more infections in coming weeks.
The death toll from the Ebola epidemic — which is spreading across west Africa, with Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone the worst hit — has topped 2,000, with nearly 4,000 people now infected, the WHO said.
The UN agency warned Liberia faced “many thousands” of new Ebola cases in the next three weeks, a sharp rise from the current 2,000 people in the country who have been infected.
In the scramble to halt the contagion, some affected countries have quarantined whole regions, while others so far spared from the deadly virus, have halted flights.
“Member states should lift all travel bans…to open up economic activities,” AU commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told reporters at an emergency meeting of the bloc in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa called to discuss Ebola.
But she said “proper screening mechanisms must be put in place”.
Experts had warned that economic losses caused by the restrictions were adding to the continent’s woes, with some arguing that travel bans even slowed medical help getting to affected areas.
Top mining and resource-sector executives weighed in on Monday, saying the travel bans were “aggravating” the humanitarian crisis.
The CEOs of 11 firms operating in west Africa — including ArcelorMittal’s Lakshmi Mittal and Randgold’s Mark Bristow — said some measures were doing more harm than good.
“There is a risk the measures being taken to restrict travel to the countries most impacted by the virus will aggravate the growing humanitarian crisis,” they said in a joint statement.
Dlamini-Zuma told the AU meeting of the urgent need to “craft a united, comprehensive and collective African response” to the outbreak.
But she also warned that in the battle to stop the spread, “we must be careful not to introduce measures that may have more… social and economic impact than the disease itself.”
Border restrictions were hampering trade and food prices were rising, she said, echoing the UN’s warning of serious foot shortages in the worst-hit countries.
Lifting travel bans would be up to individual nations, the pan-African bloc said, which is also sending medical teams to help stem Ebola’s spread.
– Potential vaccine hope –
As WHO warned of clinics filling with infected patients as soon as they opened, “a phenomenon never before seen in any previous Ebola outbreak”, hopes rose of a potential vaccine to provide temporary shield against Ebola.
A vaccine tested so far only on monkeys provided “complete short-term and partial long-term protection” from the deadly virus, researchers reported in the journal Nature Medicine.
The study endorsed testing the vaccine on humans, with first results due by the end of the year.
Economic experts warned that the cost of travel bans could do more damage than the health benefits they might bring.
“The economic impact of the Ebola outbreak will be significant,” said Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
“The economic and social impact will affect many more lives and will increase the longer the epidemic continues,” said Geraldine Fraser Moleketi, Deputy President of the African Development Bank.
The crisis has stirred a fierce debate about how the world should have responded after the first reports trickled out of the epidemic, which began in some of the world’s poorest countries.
President Barack Obama said Sunday the U.S. military will join the fight, saying the outbreak was exacerbated by the lack of public health infrastructure in the worst-hit nations.
The pledge of US military support follows the European Union’s decision on Friday to sharply increase funding to tackle the outbreak, boosting previously announced aid to 140 million euros ($183 million).
The European package is designed to support overstretched health services, fund mobile laboratories for detecting the disease, safeguard the provision of food, water and sanitation as well as help the broader economies and strengthen overall public services.
Aid agencies including Medecins Sans Frontieres have warned the world is “losing the battle” to contain the disease.
[Image: A health worker wearing personal protective equipment stands on Sept. 7, 2014 inside the high-risk area at Elwa hospital in Monrovia, which is run by the non-governmental French organization Medecins Sans Frontieres. By Dominique Faget for Agence France-Presse.]