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In Many Countries, Distance From Ebola Brings A Sense Of Safety

  • Charles Recknagel

A nurse demonstrates a protective suit at a Moscow infectious-diseases clinic.

A nurse demonstrates a protective suit at a Moscow infectious-diseases clinic.

"I don't think that infected people will come to our country," a resident of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, tells RFE/RL. "I don't think we have a lot of visitors from Africa."

But the same sentiment is widespread across vast stretches of Eurasia where people feel the threat of Ebola is far away and somehow confined to Africa.

This man, Suad Hodzic in Sarajevo, says he is alarmed by how easily the disease seems to spread. But he, too, feels far removed from any danger.

They say it is being transmitted through touch, either through mucus or saliva, that is how much I know," he says. "I think it doesn't represent a threat to me and these people [around me], but one still must be cautious."

But if many people feel their countries' distance from the epicenter of the disease in west Africa is enough to keep Ebola at bay, it could be a false sense of security.

Just how much potential Ebola has to spread globally was recently highlighted in a study published in the respected international medical review "Lancet."

The study predicted that each month an average of three air travelers a month will carry Ebola out of the worst-hit countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia if the epidemic there widens. Any ill person who passes through major transit hubs in Europe would pose a risk of passing the infection on to someone headed for other destinations around the world.

Airport Screening

That risk is spurring many countries in Eurasia to screen arriving air passengers for signs of fever, one of the early symptoms of Ebola.

But even as they do, health officials in many places remain publicly tight-lipped about the possibility of the disease arriving, leaving it uncertain just how prepared their medical systems are if it does.

Kazakhstan is an example. The Health Ministry says that health workers are using thermal scanning to check all incoming passengers on international flights.

But when asked by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service for details about how the disease would be contained if it spread at home, health officials declined to give specifics. They replied only that the country has enough facilities and beds to quarantine any patients, as well as special biological suits to protect the health professionals caring for them.

Officials in Belarus speak in equally vague terms. Deputy Health Minister Ihar Hayewski told reporters in Minsk recently that the country's health system was ready to provide a "proper" response if the virus spread there.

Independently judging how prepared countries are for the possible arrival of Ebola is difficult because there are no clear international guidelines for countries distant from the epicenter of the disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called on all countries outside the epicenter to have the ability to manage imported cases, including the capacity to treat "one or a few cases" of both ill people and those who might have had close contact with them. But the UN agency says it is not recommending setting aside any specific number of beds based on population size, leaving the number to be decided by the countries' own health services, instead.

Similarly, WHO has made no recommendations as to the number of protective suits each country should have, or how new the equipment should be, other than the equipment should not have passed its expiry date.

"What is important is to have strong programs for infection prevention and control in health-care facilities," WHO spokeswoman Cristiana Salvi tells RFE/RL. "An established culture of safe health-care practices, together with preparedness for outbreak situations, can prevent and control the dissemination of infectious agents, including Ebola."

Health officials say that the world as a whole has learned the urgency of being prepared for infectious diseases thanks to the outbreaks of SARS in 2003, the H5N1 bird flu of 2005, and the H1N1 swine flu of 2009. Still, as the case of HIV/AIDS shows, any new virus that spreads around the world unchecked by medical authorities can wreak havoc.

Lines Of Defense

In those countries where health ministries are more ready to talk about their readiness to cope with Ebola, the level of preparedness varies widely.

Ukrainian health officials say that they have quarantine stations at both of Kyiv's international airports as a first line of defense, as well as a total of 132 beds ready in the infectious-disease wards of two city hospitals should Ebola spread.

By contrast, Armenia can accommodate up to 60 patients in its main infectious disease hospital in Yerevan, while Afghanistan has set aside a total of 80 beds in two hospitals in Kabul.

Azerbaijan has eight one-person isolation chambers in its main treatment center in Baku.

As states across Eurasia show very different levels of readiness to contain any spread of Ebola, one thing few are doing is conducting broad campaigns to educate the public about the need to cooperate with health officials to prevent the disease's arrival.

In Pakistan, that lack of information may be contributing to a dangerous trend some health officials are already reporting.

Khalid Shaikh, the secretary of the health department for Sindh province, which includes Karachi, tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that Pakistani soldiers returning from working with UN peacekeeping missions in Africa routinely avoid the scanning at the airport. While that might seem convenient for the arriving individuals, it increases the risk the infection could reach Pakistan undetected.

Mashaal correspondents who questioned people in the streets of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, found that people knew about Ebola from the media but felt the disease was far away and irrelevant to their lives.

To date, Ebola has spread person-to-person in two locations outside Africa: Spain and the United States. All cases involved health workers who were infected while caring for Ebola patients who had returned from West Africa.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Armenian, Azerbaijani, Balkan, Belarus, Kazakh, and Ukrainian Services, as well as Radio Free Afghanistan and Radio Mashaal