The current Ebola outbreak has so far claimed close to 5,000 lives. Unlike previous outbreaks confined to remote African villages, Ebola has this time round found its way into Europe and the United States due to the ease with which people can travel thousands of miles and interact socially within hours, thanks to aviation.
Whereas the chances of contracting a disease like Ebola in an aviation environment (airport/airplane) are remote, there is a real possibility of infected persons flying thousands of miles and carrying the same with them to their destination. This is worsened by the fact that passengers are screened for symptoms of disease upon arrival, not before departure.
From my own personal experience, I have flown twice out of Entebbe International Airport (to Nairobi in 2009 during the outbreak of Swine flu, and to South Africa last month after Ebola had already made headlines in West Africa) during outbreak periods. I was away for five days on both occasions and was welcomed upon my return to Uganda with sanitizers, health forms, temperature checks and interviews by health personnel. I was not screened before departing Entebbe in 2009. I was screened at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport upon disembarking but was not screened on my way out of Nairobi. Last month, I was only screened when I flew back into Entebbe five days later. There was no such screening at O.R Tambo International Airport.
The only logical explanation for not screening passengers from Entebbe at O.R Tambo would be that no outbreak had been reported in Uganda. However, I was screened on my way back at Entebbe, yet no outbreak had been reported in South Africa.
Contracting states have an obligation under Article 14 of the Chicago Convention, to take effective measures to prevent spread of communicable disease by means of air navigation. Based on my personal experience, states evaluate threat and assess risk differently. This would explain why not all states screen passengers even when an outbreak of a disease as dreaded as Ebola has been reported. This contravenes the intention and spirit of the convention.
Screening for symptoms of any communicable disease during an outbreak should be routine at all entry and exit points. In addition, airport staff and cabin crew must be continuously trained to look out for, report and isolate passengers that may develop symptoms associated with any such disease within an aviation environment. Such disease should be treated like dangerous goods and illegal/unwanted immigrants where all states maintain a high level of vigilance regardless of threat levels.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) could, for instance, come up with Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS) for adoption by all contracting States to help detect and prevent spread of communicable diseases whenever outbreaks are reported. These should be specific to aviation environments and the guidelines from the World Health Organization left to cater for non aviation environments.
SARPS cannot guarantee that communicable diseases will not spread through air navigation. (Thomas Eric Duncan carried the deadly Ebola virus with him from his home in Liberia though he showed no symptoms when he left for the United States). However, they could ensure that passengers with symptoms or who develop symptoms en route can be dealt with safely to prevent further spread.
Suspending flights may not prevent spread either, unless all planes are grounded whenever an outbreak is reported, an option that remains impossible.
Large aircraft with long range capabilities allows for rapid movement and interaction of people around the world. This comes with benefits and dangers. The current Ebola outbreak and its spread to other continents is evidence that the possibility of an epidemic escalating into a global pandemic is one of such dangers.
All states must be vigilant and take precautionary measures regardless of risk or threat levels. This is the only sure way of working towards preventing spread of disease by air navigation.
This post was earlier published in eTurboNews.