EU disagrees on need for Ebola screening at Europe's airports

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union health ministers agreed on Thursday to try to improve the systems put in place by West African nations to screen departing passengers for Ebola, but disagreed on the need to check travelers arriving in their own countries.

Passengers look at a flight departure information board in a terminal at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Roissy, near Paris, February 6, 2012. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Ministers met in Brussels to discuss ways to strengthen Europe’s defenses against a disease that has killed around 4,500 people in West Africa in the latest outbreak, the worst on record.

France said on Wednesday it would begin screening air passengers for Ebola if they arrive on flights from regions hit by the disease, following similar decisions by Britain and the Czech Republic. But other EU governments have made no such move.

Belgium’s public health service said there were no checks for passengers arriving at Brussels Airport from West Africa, as World Health Organization (WHO) regulations do not require them.

“A majority of EU countries do not see at the moment the need for introducing entry screenings,” Beatrice Lorenzin, health minister of Italy, which currently holds the EU presidency, told reporters after the meeting.

EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said it was up to individual EU governments whether to screen passengers on entry and “neither the (European) Commission nor a majority of member states can impose its will on other member states”.

However, EU governments did agree to try to better coordinate the national measures they have in place at airports and ports and to increase information-sharing, Borg said.

They will try to agree for example on a common questionnaire so that all EU countries gather the same information from passengers arriving from Ebola-affected countries.

There was a stronger consensus among the European health ministers on the need to strengthen the screening procedures for departing passengers put in place by affected West African countries.

“The member states ... want to reinforce screening at the point of exit in these African countries. There are conflicting reports as to whether this screening is effective or not,” Borg said.

“So along with WHO, the Commission will immediately undertake an audit of exit screening systems in place in the affected countries - Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone - to check their effectiveness and reinforce them as necessary,” he said.

Borg said that his opinion, shared by most EU government health experts, was that although there would be cases in the EU, the risk that Ebola would spread in the 28-nation bloc was low. He added that the Commission would propose creating a voluntary network of doctors to treat Ebola at an EU level.

It expected to reach an agreement soon with the United States to borrow planes used by the State Department if EU health workers working in West African countries caught the disease and needed to be evacuated, he said.

Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Mark Trevelyan