Ebola is not an airborne disease like Tuberculosis or Influenza. It is spread through contact with bodily fluids of someone who is symptomatic. Because of the low likelihood of transmission from the recirculated air on commercial airlines, the WHO and International Civil Aviation Organization have not recommended any travel restrictions. They do, however, recommend that authorities screen passengers exiting ebola-affected countries for signs of illness. But, they say, even in the exceedingly unlikely event that an airline passenger has ebola the likelihood of him spreading to to other passengers is low.
On the small chance that someone on the plane is sick with Ebola, the likelihood of other passengers and crew having contact with their body fluids is even smaller. Usually when someone is sick with Ebola, they are so unwell that they cannot travel. WHO is therefore advising against travel bans to and from affected countries.
“Because the risk of Ebola transmission on airplanes is so low, WHO does not consider air transport hubs at high risk for further spread of Ebola,” says Dr Nuttall.
Alas, most commercial airlines have succumbed to fear of Ebola.
Today, Air France announced it was suspending flights to Sierra Leone. This was on the recommendation of the French government. British Airways has already suspended its flight from Monrovia and Conakry, Guinea. Other smaller regional airlines are also canceling flights left and right. (Korea Airlines has even suspended all routes to Kenya, which is thousands of miles from the ebola outbreak.)
As of today, there is precisely one international airline serving Freetown Sierra Leone: Royal Moroccan Airlines.
This is making life worse for people in ebola affected countries. Worse, it is undermining the international fight to contain this disease. Cutting off access to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone means that moving the personnel and equipment required to contain the outbreak is much more logistically complicated and expensive.
The man in charge of coordinating the UN system’s response to the crisis, Dr. David Nabarro, blasted airlines for canceling routes. “By isolating the country, it makes it difficult for the UN to do its work,” Nabarro told reporters in Freetown. In an earlier interview with the UN News Center, he said “I want to be clear, very clear, that there is no justification for stopping people from traveling to countries that are currently affected by the Ebola disease outbreak. The issue here is that you want to stop people from coming into close contact with people with Ebola virus disease, specifically from touching them. That means identifying the people who have the disease and helping them to avoid contact with other people. But it doesn’t mean that you have some kind of overall prevention of travel to the affected countries”
Still, flights are being cancelled left and right and these cancellations are starting to have a deleterious effect on international efforts to stop the spread of ebola. On Monday, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control — arguably one of the most important human beings on the planet in the fight against ebola — had his flight to Freetown via Brussels Airlines cancelled, delaying a critical visit to the region. One can only imagine the hurdles that international NGOs and relief agencies are going through to move assets to the region.
The fight against ebola was always going to be difficult. But by cutting off access to affected countries, commercial airlines are arguably making it more difficult to contain this epidemic.