US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), who are earmarked for the fight against Ebola, train before their deployment to West Africa, at Fort Campbell in Kentucky this week. Photo: Reuters

Johannesburg - With west Africa gripped by the Ebola outbreak, the virus has wreaked havoc around the world with experts working around the clock to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

From the building of medical centres and tests at airports to scientists working on diagnostic tests and a vaccine, the fight is under way to contain and treat the disease, which has killed thousands so far.

Thousands are fleeing the borders of Ebola-stricken West Africa, some headed for Joburg to join family and friends already living here.

This could place South Africa at considerable risk.

The rush to escape the region’s borders comes as the death toll tips the 4 000 mark, with the bulk of the mortalities registered in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

According to some members of the immigrant communities of the affected countries living in the Joburg CBD, as well as a trader who travels between the region and here, there is a considerable number of people who are attempting to reach South Africa, most of them making the arduous 5 000km trek by land.

“I know of at least five people who are coming here from Conakry,” one man from Guinea told The Sunday Independent on Saturday.

Guinea has recorded 1 350 cases of Ebola since the outbreak began, which has resulted in 778 deaths.

However, Liberia is worst hit with 2 316 deaths, followed by Sierra Leone with 930 deaths.

Although he claims to know of dozens more from other West African countries who say they too are en route to South Africa, this could not be verified.

However all that is required is just one carrier to change the game for South Africa, particularly when the living patterns of the thousands-strong migrant communities are weighed up.

Undocumented migrants usually enter the country through the porous border at Beitbridge in northern Limpopo (where there are no temperature radars in place to do an initial check on visitors who may be carrying the virus).

Once inside the country, they tend to head to the densely populated area of the Joburg city centre, a den of African migrants and sometimes a hotbed of socially transmitted ills – in short, an ideal breeding ground for a communicable virus such as Ebola.

It raises the grim question of how prepared a country with such lax border controls can really be at a time like this.

However, Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba, as well as Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, have warned that while caution must be exercised, it cannot be at the expense of fuelling xenophobia.

“We need to be prepared, and we are taking the necessary precautions,” said Motsoaledi, who is in constant contact with the ambassadors of the affected countries.

“But the last thing we want to see is panic setting in and innocent immigrants becoming the victims of unnecessary xenophobia.”

More than 60 people were killed in unforgettable incidents of xenophobia in 2008 and, though there has been no repeat of such extreme violence since then, interracial tensions have continued to simmer.

Motsoaledi is also of the view that should the virus reach South Africa, it would not be imported by a land traveller but by someone who enters the country via one of the country’s airports.

“South Africa is simply too far away for most people to reach by land and if they were to try, and were carrying the disease, the chances are they would fall very ill along the way anyway and wouldn’t reach here alive,” he said.

According to SAA, which flies to five countries in West Africa, though not to any of the high-risk areas, precautionary measures have been in place since April, when the outbreak started, to protect both the public and their staff.

High-risk passengers, for example passengers from Liberia attempting to board an SAA flight in Ghana, are screened on the ground.

Anyone suspected of harbouring the virus is simply not allowed to board, says the airline’s spokesman, Tlali Tlali.

Back home, all of SA’s airports have also safeguarded against a crisis with sophisticated radars in place to capture raised temperatures, the first warning signs of the virus, while 11 hospitals in the country’s main metropolitan areas have been identified as treatment centres, should the need arise.

While west Africa has been ravaged by the epidemic, it is only when it spread outside the continent this week to the US and Spain that the international community began to sit up and realise that it is now in their best interests to help curb the worst outbreak ever of the killer virus.

Members of South Africa’s corporate sector met on Friday with Motsoaledi and ambassadors of the affected countries to appeal for assistance in monetary and other terms.

“And we came away with the equivalent of R12 million worth of assistance, but west Africa needs much, much more if we want to win this war,” according to the minister.

on Friday his words were echoed by the UN, which is appealing for greater assistance.

Donations have so far fallen well short of the $1 billion (about R11.1bn) needed to bring the outbreak – the deadliest since Ebola first made its appearance in 1976 – under control.

Sunday Independent