Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Airlines need to help curb spread of Ebola

By Kantathi Suphamongkhon (China Daily) Updated: 2014-08-05 08:10

Airlines need to help curb spread of Ebola

Doctors Without Borders have declared the Ebola epidemic "out of control." World Health Organization's director general Dr Margaret Chan, has said that the Ebola outbreak is moving faster than efforts to control it and if it continues on this path, the consequences could be "catastrophic".

The current outbreak of Ebola is different from all previous outbreaks. In the past, Ebola infections happened in isolated rural areas of Central Africa, remote from the rest of the world. Ebola victims were not jet travelers and this deadly disease was only a distant nightmare, never a real threat to the international community.

This time, Ebola has killed more than 800 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The virus has the petrifying record of killing up to 90 percent of the people that it infects, even though the current outbreak so far has a mortality rate of 60 percent. There is no cure for Ebola. The disease has now reached major urban settings in West Africa. In the past few days, an Ebola victim died in Lagos after having taken an international flight. From Lagos, flights can reach all parts of the world. Even though still seen as highly unlikely, a world Ebola pandemic can no longer be ruled out.

The international community must not be complacent. Some medical experts have urged the general public not to be fearful of Ebola since the disease is not airborne, unlike SARS, the Bird Flu and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). This is only a partial picture.

Indeed, Ebola may not be airborne, but the victim's body fluids are highly contagious. This means that a person can catch Ebola even without seeing or touching the victim in person, but merely by touching the same door knobs, water faucets or anything else that an infected person may have touched with unclean hands earlier in public places.

The screening of jet travelers for contagious diseases must be upgraded. There is a lot of work that medical and security experts must accomplish urgently. For this article, I shall highlight one simple thing that airlines around the world can easily do and must do now.

Most airlines may have contributed to the spreading of deadly diseases such as Ebola, SARS, the Bird Flu and MERS, simply by not allowing sick passengers, holding certain types of tickets, to change their flights, without financial penalties. I have known many air passengers, with the flu, being forced to cough their way onto board planes, simply because airlines would not allow them to delay their flights, without financial penalties. This practice has increased the incentive for people with contagious diseases to fly.

From now on, airlines must allow people who are sick to wait and fly when they are well, without any financial penalties, regardless of the types of tickets they may hold. This is a small and simple sacrifice that airlines can do now to save lives.

The author is the 39th minister of foreign affairs of Thailand. This opinion essay was distributed by the US-based Pacific Perspectives Media Center.

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