Emirates Airline, the Gulf’s leading carrier, has cancelled all flights to the capital of Guinea until further notice after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued level 3 warnings against all nonessential travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone over the threat of the Ebola virus in the region.
The suspension of the route follows a similar decision by the West African airlines Arik Air, the largest airline operator in Nigeria and also the national carrier of Sierra Leone, and Togo’s ASKY Airlines, both of which have stopped flying to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Emirates’ flight schedule for August as of July allotted four weekly flights to Conakry in Guinea, but a statement announcing the cancellation noted that, “the safety of our passengers and crew is of the highest priority and will not be compromised.”
The announcement added that the airline will continue flying to adjacent Senegal, but “will be guided by the updates from international health authorities.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is working with the International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organization to monitor the situation, but has not as yet recommended any restrictions for Senegal.
West African nations and aid organisations are currently grappling with the disease, but have largely failed to contain the spread of the virus, which has led to the infection or more than 1,300 people and the death of over 728 people since the start of February.
The current Ebola outbreak is the largest ever recorded since the virus was first detected in 1976, and far exceeds the next largest outbreak, involving 425 cases. It has also been quite deadly, with an estimated 60% of its documented cases proving fatal.
The outbreak began in Sierra Leone and quickly spread to Liberia, and it was the death of a Liberian in Lagos last week, after a flight from his home country that prompted Arik Air and ASKY Airlines to halt all flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Despite no recommendation for any travel or trade restrictions in the three affected countries from the WHO, border authorities in the Ivory Coast prevented 400 Ivorian refugees who had fled to Liberia during political upheavals from re-entering the country
However, significant action is being taken and on 1st August the director-general of the WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, met with the leaders of the West African nations impacted by the Ebola virus to launch a $100m response plan aimed at redoubling efforts to control the spread.
In related developments, an experimental drug called ZMapp that US biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical has only previously tested on non-human primates was flown into Liberia last week to potentially save two Samaritan’s Purse workers dying from the Ebola virus.
Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol contracted the disease in Liberia and have since been flown back to the United States for advanced Western medical care, and though the condition of both remains grave, Writebol has shown improvement after taking the serum.
Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, has been a prominent voice criticising the inequality inherent in the tortuously slow mobilisation of Western governments and pharmaceutical companies in addressing the harm Ebola is inflicting upon West African communities.
However, the disease has also been a comparatively low priority for health organisations on account of the relatively small number of people it affects. The WHO lists only 1,600 known Ebola deaths since it was discovered, whereas measles killed 122,000 in 2012 alone.
The current outbreak is the first instance of the disease spreading so widely, both in terms of the number of people effected and the geographical distribution, and both of these factors have likely contributed to the cautious approach of Arik Air, ASKY Airlines and now Emirates Airline.