Travel Restrictions Hamper African Medical Staff in Ebola Fight

Travel Restrictions Hamper African Medical Staff in Ebola Fight

Scores of African doctors and nurses—many of them with experience treating Ebola—have experienced delays getting to affected regions because of flight bans and travel restrictions, an African Union official said on Thursday.

The African Union said in early September that it would send volunteer health workers to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to help fight the outbreak. But the first teams only arrived last week in Liberia and Sierra Leone and a Guinea team has yet to depart, said Olawale Maiyegun, the African Union’s Director of Social Affairs, who is overseeing the deployment.

“It has been a logistical challenge getting them there,” Mr. Maiyegun said. “Even when we went for an assessment, we thought it should not be more than five days. It took us 13 days. Why? Because Senegal closed its airspace. We had to go through Marrakesh.”

The delays illustrate the difficulties facing an African continent torn between the desire to help and the fear of the virus spreading across porous borders into countries with health systems as weak as those already battling an epidemic.

Last week, the African Union finally got 28 medical volunteers on the ground in Liberia and 21 in Sierra Leone. About 40 more doctors, nurses and other health-care workers are departing in the next few days, many of them headed to Guinea, Mr. Maiyegun said, adding that it will take days longer for them to arrive because of circuitous flights through Europe. The largest number of volunteers dispatched are from Uganda—doctors and nurses who have had experience putting down Ebola outbreaks in that country, he said.

The African Union has loudly criticized member states that have closed their borders to travelers from Ebola-affected countries but its remonstrations have had little effect.

Rwanda—one of the countries with the strictest entry rules—even briefly added a requirement this week for travelers from the U.S. and Spain to report their medical condition with a daily phone call. Both the U.S. and Spain have had Ebola cases, while Rwanda has had none. The requirement was lifted after four days, but Rwanda still bans travelers who have recently been in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone.

Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad, South Africa, Cameroon, Cape Verde and Kenya have all have either closed borders or issued restrictions on travelers arriving from affected countries. Connections between East Africa and West Africa have become particularly difficult because Kenya—a major regional hub—blocked flights to or from the affected countries. Currently, the only countries with flights to Liberia, for example, are Morocco and Belgium.

In many African countries, the restrictions on flights and travelers reflect an acknowledgment of weak health care systems that could easily be overrun by Ebola. There are nine countries world-wide with a life expectancy of less than 55 years—all of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

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