Of course it’s very difficult to predict the future with absolute certainty but when you’re planning a trip to any country what you can do (very easily now thanks to the web) is lots of research and read up on the political situation in the country and the wider region. Or in this case read up on the Ebola virus and then make an informed judgement on what may or may not happen in the near future. At present the risk from Ebola in Eastern or Southern Africa is zero but in 5 months or maybe 10 months when you’re hoping to be on safari in Kenya or Zambia or wherever what will the risk be then?
If you book a safari for next year now could you find that when the time comes you have to cancel to avoid putting your life at risk from Ebola, the short answer in my view is no.
Here’s a rather longer answer
Two of the great fears with regard to Ebola both concern the possibility that the disease could become airborne albeit in two different ways. The virus is spread through contact with an infected person’s (or animal’s) bodily fluids but it’s not an airborne virus in the sense that the common cold or flu. It’s not spread via aerosol droplets that can travel significant distances when someone coughs or sneezes and are also produced just when they talk or exhale and that can be carried much further by air conditioning and ventilation systems. However it is theoretically possible that it could mutate and become airborne leading to an even more catastrophic infection and death rate. The other more immediate fear however is that someone infected with the virus could board an international flight potentially spreading Ebola around the world.
The first of these fears is I suspect for the moment really just science-fiction, yes the virus could mutate and become truly airborne but (I think) the chances of this actually happening are really pretty slim, yes some scientists are talking about this as a theoretical possibility but really this danger is being hyped up by the media. As for the second fear that someone with Ebola could board an international flight well as I'm sure everyone is aware this has now already happened twice.
In the first case a Liberian American citizen Patrick Sawyer was visiting his family in Liberia; his sister became ill with Ebola he tried to look after her but inevitably she died, after the funeral he decided to return to the US via Nigeria By the time he boarded the flight he was already ill and while on the plane was suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting so quite why he was allowed on I’m not sure although these could be symptoms of other more familiar diseases like malaria. Before long the plane landed in Lagos one of the world’s largest cities with a population of close to eighteen million people in Africa’s most populous country.
A passenger plane carrying an infectious Ebola victim landing in one of the world’s megacities everyone’s worst nightmare had just begun. If the virus got loose in the city many millions of people could potentially die and who knows where else it might spread to as Lagos is a major transport hub.
Of course as soon as it became clear that Mr Sawyer was most likely suffering from Ebola the authorities were immediately notified and on landing he was transferred to straight to hospital and quarantined. The 281 people that may have come into contact with him were identified and tracked down and every one of those people given strict instructions to provide twice daily updates on their state of health to the health authorities. As a result of this strategy known as contact tracing there have been just 20 cases and only eight deaths including the unfortunate Mr Sawyer. If the Nigerians really have been successful in containing the outbreak and no new cases are identified then on the 20th of October the WHO will declare the country Ebola free.
In the second case another Liberian American Thomas Eric Duncan flew from Monrovia to Brussels and then on to Washington and Texas. While Mr Sawyer was already ill when he boarded his flight Mr Duncan was not, Ebola has an incubation period of from 2 days to 3 weeks during this time before the onset of symptoms a person with Ebola is not infectious. Since Mr Duncan was not showing any symptoms and was not aware that he was sick although he possibly may have lied when asked if he’d had any contact with Ebola victims there was really no reason to stop him from flying. It was only when he was back home in Texas five days after landing in the US that the first symptoms started to appear and that he realised that he was ill, he went to see a doctor informing them that he had just returned from Liberia however instead of major alarm bells going off they sent him home with a dose of antibiotics. These of course had no effect and he soon became seriously ill and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital on the way he was vomiting inside the ambulance potentially exposing the crew to the virus. All of the people that he came in to contact with are being monitored which in this case is only 50 because he was not infectious when he was flying and so far none of them are showing signs of having Ebola. The unfortunate Mr Duncan’s prognosis does not look that good because unfortunately supplies of the experimental vaccine have run out so he may well die. Only nine of the people he had contact with are believed to be at serious risk, had Mr Duncan been admitted to hospital immediately and not sent home none of these people would be in any danger at all. They won’t make the same mistake again and if any of them do become ill they will be quarantined so there is no risk of the disease spreading further.
What Texas can learn from Nigeria when it comes to containing Ebola
Back in Africa a man from Guinea crossed over the border into Senegal and was found to have Ebola so far there have been no other cases in Senegal.
What these cases show is that Ebola can be contained without too much difficulty and that the fear that Ebola could turn in to some kind of apocalyptic global pandemic wiping out half the human race as tabloid newspapers, novelists and Hollywood movies would have us believe is largely unfounded. They show that this fear too is also very largely just science fiction.
Two of the countries at the epicentre of this outbreak Liberia and Sierra Leone are extremely poor and have only recently emerged from many years if civil war it is no surprise that they have failing health care systems completely incapable of controlling this crisis which is rapidly spiralling out of control. The situation is going to get a lot worse before it finally gets better, soon the infection and death rate will pass into the tens of thousands and could conceivably in the worst case scenario pass into the hundreds of thousands threatening these countries with total collapse then I can see that there is a very real risk that the virus will spread into neighbouring countries, unless the borders can be completely sealed. When everyone around you seems to be dying you’re going to want to flee and get as far away as possible so it’s not hard to imagine Ebola refugees crossing in to neighbouring countries and spreading the virus further. I wouldn’t personally consider booking a trip for next year going to Guinea Bissau, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso or Senegal just to be on the safe side because I think if the epidemic really does get many times worse than it already is then there is a real risk of the virus spreading to these countries. Though having said I don’t actually think I would be putting myself at huge risk if I did decide to visit one of these countries next year, but one doesn’t know what other problems might arise if there is a new outbreak.
Would I be concerned about booking a trip for next year to anywhere in Eastern Africa, Southern Africa or even Central Africa?
No absolutely not and certainly not because of Ebola. Kenya has banned all flights from the three most effected countries though of course this just means there are no direct flights so someone determined to reach Nairobi could fly via somewhere else. Even so I think the risk of someone with Ebola flying to Kenya is pretty small and even if this does eventually happen, the authorities should be able to contain the virus easily enough following Nigeria’s example. In the unlikely event that there is a small outbreak in Kenya (or other safari countries) I don’t think that I as a safari tourist would be in any real danger at all certainly not when out in the bush. So if I was booked to go on a safari in Kenya and I learnt that there were one or more confirmed cases at a hospital in Nairobi would I cancel my trip, no I wouldn’t. If there were hundreds of cases then yes, but that’s extremely unlikely, Kenya despite all it's faults doesn't have all the problems that Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have that have allowed the Ebola outbreak to become out of control there.
In Central Africa there is in fact an ongoing and entirely unrelated outbreak of Ebola in the DRC so far they’ve had 70 cases and 42 deaths but it’s likely that they will soon have the situation under control as they have previous experience dealing with Ebola. This outbreak is unlikely to spread to neighbouring countries and I have no plans to visit the DRC just yet, so this doesn’t worry me at all.
The Times newspaper and other papers reported recently that there is a 50% chance that someone infected with Ebola could fly into the UK in the next three weeks and in France there is a 75% chance, so maybe I should avoid visiting London or Paris for the foreseeable future. Both cities are a good deal closer to the effected countries than anywhere in Eastern or Southern Africa and there are many more flights from West Africa coming here. Indeed a chart in the following report on the Channel 4 News website suggests that the chances of Ebola being imported into Kenya is only about half that of it being brought into the UK, so perhaps I'd be safer to move to Kenya than stay here.
Where will the deadly Ebola virus strike next?
Our health systems may be much better than those in Africa but there is still a real risk that there could be a small outbreak here or in France especially if doctors make the same mistake as in Dallas and send an infected person home telling them they have the flu which is quite possible as we are entering the flu season. The risk of a small outbreak in London or somewhere else in the UK is if anything greater than the risk in most of Eastern or Southern Africa, Heathrow Airport after all is one of the world’s major transport hubs. Do I expect to learn that there has been a significant drop in tourists visiting the UK because of Ebola? No I don’t not unless an actual case is reported. If there is a case here, would I be worried no not really, an English nurse William Pooley brought back from Sierra Leone with Ebola was successfully treated by the NHS and has fully recovered without infecting anyone else. Besides I’m not a nurse or a doctor so my chances of coming into contact with someone suffering from Ebola here or for that matter in Africa or anywhere else in the world are in my view next to nonexistent.
After writing this I heard about the case of the nurse in Spain who now has Ebola after treating one of the two Spanish priests who were flown back from Liberia with the disease, this is a cause for concern because the hospital does not as yet know what went wrong and how she contracted it. However I am confident that they will contain it and that there will not be an actual outbreak in Spain, it is still a worry but it hasn’t changed my overall view that the risk is minimal. Channel 4 News here just described this as an outbreak, is one infected person, three people under close observation one of whom has now tested negative and twenty one people being monitored really an outbreak?
There is just way too much hysteria and scaremongering about this disease, ignore the hysterical ranting of the ill informed, the conspiracy theorists, the people who believe that this one case in Texas could wipe out half of America and it’s all Obama’s fault. Or that flights should be stopped from the whole of Africa when there have only been serious outbreaks in four countries and cases in two others out of the fifty five African countries. Or that we should spend even more time stuck at airports so that millions of uninfected people can be tested for signs of the disease in order to try and stop the tiny number of people that will be infected from getting through. As the case of Mr Duncan in America illustrates there’s no point in only testing people arriving direct from West Africa, you’d have to test all arriving passengers coming from anywhere on the assumption that they might have started their journey in an effected country. How long would that take? What would it cost? And more importantly would it work? Most probably not if an infected passenger is not symptomatic they most likely won’t be detected. I am afraid there will undoubtedly be a few more cases in Europe and in America but we shouldn’t panic about this, even though I’m only a layman I am confident that this won’t lead to serious outbreaks. We know how to control this disease, if patients are properly quarantined and all of their contacts traced and monitored and the doctors and nurses treating them have the proper protective clothing and follow the correct procedures and if infected bodily fluids are cleaned up using bleach which kills the virus then new outbreaks can and will be prevented.
I hope that when there is no outbreak in Dallas people will realise that their fears were very largely unfounded, but I doubt it I suspect they’ll just assume that America has had a very narrow escape.
To put things in perspective since the start of this crisis around 3,000 people have now died from Ebola yet within the same time period perhaps 300,000 people have died from malaria.
On a separate issue related to the downturn in tourist numbers in East Africa the Somali Army and AU troops have apparently captured the town of Barawe al Shabab’s last stronghold on the Somali coast. I suppose in the short term this could possibly increase the threat of terrorism in Kenya and Uganda but in the long term it is very good news.
Somali troops 'capture key port town' from al-Shabab
I hope soon that I will be reading about both the end of the Ebola crisis and the defeat of al Shabab and then perhaps tourist numbers will return to normal.
Personally I see no reason not to book now, but if numbers really are down then I suppose it doesn’t matter if you don’t and maybe if you hold of you might get a better deal.
Having said all of this we should still all be very concerned about Ebola but are concern should be reserved for those countries and people that are currently being devastated by this awful disease and not for hypothetical problems that could occur in countries that don’t have Ebola and very likely never will.
Ebola: Mapping the outbreak
Ebola virus: busting the myths