BEIRUT: Preparations are in place at Beirut’s airport to combat the possible spread of Ebola, in the wake of an outbreak of the deadly virus in West Africa of unprecedented severity that has struck fear into the worldwide health community.
“We examine those with fever or symptoms and send them to Rafik Hariri Hospital or American University of Beirut [Hospital],” said Hassan Mallah, a doctor employed by the Health Ministry who inspects passengers arriving at the airport who are suspected of being infected.
So far, he told The Daily Star his team had found no cases of Ebola, but had been instructed to obtain addresses and contact information for anyone suspected of carrying the contagious disease, which has a fatality rate of 90 percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Health Ministry, coordinating with the WHO, has distributed awareness-raising brochures and flyers to all passengers who pass through the airport. Experts say the risk of in-flight transmission remains low as Ebola isn’t an airborne disease but is spread via bodily fluids, such as blood, mucus and semen, where it can survive for up to three months.
The heightened measures come as Nigeria’s Lagos – which is connected to Beirut via almost nightly direct MEA flights – this week became the latest city to have a confirmed case of Ebola, which has claimed 729 lives in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria since the outbreak began in February.
According to the WHO website, symptoms include rapid fever and flu-like symptoms, which then progresses to vomiting, diarrhea and organ failure followed by internal and external bleeding.
For the past several months, the Health Ministry has stationed doctors at Rafik Hariri International Airport to screen passengers for various diseases including Ebola and SARS, a respiratory disease. All arrivals pass via four cameras installed several months ago that use infrared technology to measure their body temperatures. Those with higher than normal temperatures are sent to be examined.
“If a person is infected on a plane, they would attract attention on the flight here,” said Salim Adib, epidemiologist and Lebanese University professor. He said the incubation period can range from two to 20 days, during which time symptoms would not show.
In theory, the individual should be separated from other passengers and the plane should land immediately, he said. However, he added, “it’s unlikely the plane would land in any of the countries between Nigeria and Beirut.”
But he also expressed doubt that Lebanese authorities would be able to handle an Ebola outbreak due to the immense stress posed by more than 1 million Syrian refugees on Lebanon’s public health infrastructure.
Just the presence of a single Ebola case in Lebanon could quickly and easily be transmitted to 15-20 people, he said. “These are emergencies,” he continues. “To respond to them, you need extra resources. With the Syrian crisis, the ministry has no extra resources.”
WHO cites the necessity of wearing protective garments, especially masks and gloves, when working with anyone infected. Contact with bodily fluids should be avoided.
Originally a disease found only in rural settings, Ebola is now rapidly spreading in urban areas, with health officials pointing to contact with and ingestion of infected animal meat as a major factor in the disease’s transmission.
According to experts, travel is risky because it puts people in close proximity to each other. However, international airlines association IATA said the WHO was not recommending travel restrictions or border closures due to the outbreak, and says there would be a low risk to other passengers if an Ebola patient flew.
Fear of Ebola transmission on flights reached a peak in the past week when a Liberian government consultant exhibited symptoms of the disease while on a flight to Nigeria. He was later confirmed to have contracted Ebola.
Both indirect and direct flights from Beirut to West Africa, where nearly 250,000 Lebanese are estimated to reside, increase in the summer months. National carrier Middle East Airlines’ website lists direct flights to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, Accra in Ghana, and the Nigerian cities of Lagos and Kano.