Durban - Ebola could be the new Black Death and we’re not doing enough to stop it entering South Africa. That’s the view of Dr Ayo Olowolagba, head of the Communicable Disease Services for eThekwini Municipality.
The Ebola virus, a viral haemorrhagic fever, surfaced in west Africa a few months ago. Thus far it has claimed more than 700 lives and is said to be out of control in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Liberia is also affected.
Dr Olowolagba said the virus is a plane or ship ride away and that doesn’t take into account the many people who enter South Africa illegally – often walking across the border.
Despite reassurances from the authorities, he believes the measures to detect the virus are ineffective. He further warned the virus had the potential to be the next Black Death – a pandemic that killed between 75-200 million people in Europe and other parts of the world during 1346 and 1353.
This week authorities said they were using temperature-monitoring devices at all ports to detect those who may have the virus.
The problem with that, according to Olowolagba, is that some of those affected do not have a high temperature.
“We are at risk, everyone is at risk. There is no cure for Ebola and the mortality rate is 70 to 100 percent. Almost everyone that is diagnosed, will die,” said Olowolagba.
He said that back in 1996, an outbreak reached Johannesburg through visitors from other countries. “The possibility of this happening again is very high. People need to be screened at all of our ports using a temperature-monitoring device and those with extremely high temperatures should be treated as suspected victims.
“But even this is not safe enough. Some people have the virus and they do not show the symptoms. Temperature is just one way to detect it” said Olowolagba.
He said that the incubation period of the virus was between 2-21 days. It meant an infected person could enter the country and not be detected.
“Illegal immigrants entering the country are a serious threat and should be our biggest concern. They could bring the virus into the country because monitoring this is beyond the control of authorities,” said Olowolagba.
The World Health Organisation confirmed Olowolagba’s statement, saying the screening of passengers at points of entry is expected to have little impact. The organisation said that it is very difficult to detect Ebola in a person as the virus has a incubation period and symptoms that are not specific.
The virus can be passed on through contact with the bodily fluids of a person or corpse infected with the disease.
It can also spread if there is contact with, or handling of, wild animals, alive or dead, or their raw or undercooked meat.
Olowolagba advised that the only way to curb the disease was to prevent being infected. For this one had to wear protective gear like masks and gloves, even when travelling.
The national Department of Health said it had taken urgent steps to detect and manage infected people if they arrived in the country.
The spokesman for the department, Joe Maila, said that surveillance for viral haemorrhagic fevers has been strengthened at all ports of entry. Port health services as well as public and private health care practitioners are on the alert for any ill persons that have travelled to high-risk areas.
“Alerts have been circulated to all stakeholders; outbreak response teams in all provinces have been trained and are on high alert.
“The National Health Laboratory services and National Institute for Communicable Diseases intensified their surveillance at laboratories and are supporting epidemic preparedness and response activities,” said Maila.
He said the Department of Health was closely monitoring the situation in west Africa and had taken the necessary steps to detect and treat cases in South Africa.
Spokeswoman for Airports Company South Africa (Acsa), Unathi Batyashe-Fillis, said that the company had installed body temperature sensors at OR Tambo International’s immigration queuing points to detect the body temperature of passengers.
“The airport also has a quarantine facility in an event that passengers are required to be held in isolation prior to be transferred for further treatment,” she said.
Meanwhile a seriously ill American Ebola patient arrived in the US from Liberia late last night.
Dr Kent Brantly, 33, was taken to an isolation ward at an Atlanta hospital – the first Ebola victim known to be on American soil. He was flown in a specially equipped medical plane.
There are now plans to fly home a second American, missionary Nancy Writebol, in the coming days.
Both were infected while helping out with the outbreak in Liberia.
They will be treated in a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital where doctors believe they’ll have a better chance to steer them back to health while ensuring the virus doesn’t spread.