Abidjan - Ivory Coast, the economic powerhouse of French-speaking West Africa, on Monday banned air travellers from the three countries worst-hit by the Ebola outbreak and ordered its flagship carrier Air Cote d'Ivoire to cease flights to and from them.
The measures are the latest sign of mounting anxiety about a disease that has killed nearly 1,000 people in one of the world's poorest regions and has been branded an international health emergency by the World Health Organization.
Ivory Coast has not yet registered any cases of the deadly viral disease but is seen as vulnerable given its shared borders with Guinea and Liberia.
Chocolate maker Barry Callebaut confirmed it has cancelled a major meeting of managers in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa grower, due to concerns about Ebola's spread, in an indication that concern over the outbreak is hurting the regional economy.
“We have banned flights to and from countries touched by the virus, notably Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. These places will no longer be serviced by Air Cote d'Ivoire,” Transport Minister Gaoussou Toure said.
The government has also forbidden all airlines from bringing passengers from Ebola-infected countries into Ivory Coast, after similar measures in nearby Gambia and Zambia last week.
Mandatory temperature tests will be put in place at airports and new screening measures are planned at maritime entry points, the government said.
The main airport in the commercial capital Abidjan attracts more than 2 million passengers a year and is a major transit hub in a region where travel routes are rarely direct, raising the chances of Ebola contagion.
In the streets of Abidjan, pedestrians hurried towards new hand sanitising stations while similar products in pharmacies were selling quickly. Following government recommendations, most people have stopped the lengthy handshakes that characterise street conversations - instead waving or nodding their heads.
“Today this disease has arrived and it has no remedy. We are afraid because we are surrounded by countries where this virus already exists, like Guinea, and these people come and go here,” said Patrice Zogba, a computer technician.
Highly contagious, Ebola kills more than half of its victims. It is believed to have been transferred from fruit bats to humans in Guinea late last year and then spilled over in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The virus has since spread to Nigeria via a passenger from Liberia who collapsed in the busy Lagos airport in late July and later died. Nigeria now has more than 10 confirmed Ebola cases, its health minister said on Monday.
As the disease spreads, the weakness of West African healthcare systems has been exposed. Liberia, where the disease is spreading fastest, has only 51 qualified doctors while Sierra Leone has just 136, according to political risk research company DaMina Advisors.
Chinese state media said on Sunday that Chinese disease control experts planned to depart to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to help control the virus. A Chinese plane carrying protective suits, disinfectants, thermo-detectors and medicines arrived in Conakry on Monday, it said.