09/09/2014 06:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Battle Against Ebola, Banning Flights Is Not the Solution

Photograph by Jarsea Burphy

Recent statements by officials from the World Health Organization (WHO), Doctors Without Borders, and the Centers for Disease Control have begun to acknowledge the difficulty in containing the Ebola outbreak. In a recent article, I explored several of the issues surrounding the mistrust of medical professionals in some African communities and identified ways to improve communication. For example, I suggested greater use of African languages in Ebola awareness campaigns and greater exchange between citizens, health workers, and government officials. Nonetheless, hysteria has started to grow within and outside the African continent, and many outside of the African continent are confounding its countries and regions. More attention is being paid to the possibility of a global spread, and companies and governments are beginning to respond. As the Ebola outbreak continues, airlines and policymakers should facilitate procedures that maintain greater public health while helping to contain the outbreak in West Africa.

Sixteen countries make up West Africa, with one being an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, and only four of the sixteen countries have cases of multiple Ebola infections. A fifth country, Senegal, has one reported case. One of these countries, Nigeria, has less than twenty confirmed cases of Ebola, and thus far, it has been fairly successful in containing it. The health care system in Nigeria is better than those in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, and this will likely assist in quickly containing and stemming widespread Ebola cases in this country. Because of its more developed health care system, the mortality rate from Ebola in Nigeria is also lower than those in other parts of West Africa. Just after Nigeria's early cases of Ebola were confirmed, British Airways announced that it would stop flying to and from Nigeria. The risk of catching Ebola in Nigeria, however, would be minimal at this juncture. Further, the government has done a decent job of identifying all medical and government personnel in contact with the original carrier. They have continued to monitor this personnel and everyone that they came into contact with during daily visits. It will be interesting to see how Nigeria continues to respond to the issue in upcoming weeks.

Some airlines are restricting travel between Ebola-affected countries as well as non-affected countries in West and East Africa. A sample of these airlines include: Emirates, Korean Air, and Asky Air. Completely restricting air travel to countries battling Ebola and to those in the West African sub region is not the solution. In order to contain the outbreak, adequate supplies and personnel should be accessible to the affected countries. One of the reasons that Ebola has spread so quickly in this region is due to a paucity in public health infrastructure and medical personnel. Existing medical facilities and human resources need not only to be maintained but also augmented during this critical time. WHO and Doctors Without Borders have asked airlines to maintain flights to assist with these efforts. Recent pledges to bolster local care from the EU and USAID will require access to the affected areas as well.

Yes, there are some risks associated with populations moving out of Ebola affected regions to other locales. However, with proper measures taken, the likelihood of transmission to new populations can be greatly minimized. For example, several airport arrival points in Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Nigeria are observing passengers and checking temperatures of incoming passengers. This is an efficient way to identify and isolate people who could potentially carry Ebola while swiftly containing them and maintaining public health.

We are moving into the fall and winter when colds and influenza are common throughout much of the globe. These respiratory illnesses are more contagious than Ebola. The flu is expected to kill thousands more than Ebola will globally this year. Similarly, in 2003, SARS infected more than 8,000 people around the globe. Alarms were raised about air travel, customers were allowed to re-schedule trips, and some flight routes were reduced. However, most airlines continued to fly in the region and to and from the West. In the case of Ebola in Africa, things are playing out very differently. The world is awakening to the idea that the African continent is not inconsequential in global public health. At the same time, many people living outside the continent are trying to quickly understand Ebola, different African societies, and African geography. It is critical that medical professionals based in West Africa and those coming from abroad are able to have consistent access to the resources that they need to stem the spread of Ebola.