October 23, 2014 / 2:11 PM / 5 years ago

WHO wary of screening arriving passengers for Ebola, but no ban

GENEVA (Reuters) - Screening passengers for Ebola on their arrival may have “a limited effect” in stopping the virus spreading but whether it adds anything to exit screening from affected countries is a decision for governments, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

U.S. Coast Guard Health Technician Nathan Wallenmeyer (L) and Customs Border Protection (CBP) Supervisor Sam Ko conduct prescreening measures on a passenger arriving from Sierra Leone at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 5 in Chicago, in this handout picture taken October 16, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Customs Border Protection/Melissa Maraj/Handout via Reuters

The advice from the WHO’s Emergency Committee on Ebola came a day after the United States said travelers from three West African countries at the heart of the epidemic must fly into one of five major airports for enhanced screening for the virus.

“Entry screening may have a limited effect in reducing international spread when added to exit screening, and its advantages and disadvantages should be carefully considered,” the committee said in a statement after its third meeting.

Passengers are already screened as they leave Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, a measure that is critical for reducing the exportation of the virus, it said.

“So far 36,000 persons have been screened and 100 have been deferred from traveling,” Isabelle Nuttall, director of global capacities alert and response in WHO’s health security arm, said in an emailed comment.

The committee of experts, which meets virtually to advise WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, said some countries had introduced entry screening and they should share their experiences and lessons learned.

States should be aware that screening incoming passengers helped to sensitize individuals to the risk of the disease, but “resource demands may be significant”, even if only targeted screening is put in place.

The outbreak has killed at least 4,877 people and at least 9,936 cases of the disease have been recorded, the WHO said on Wednesday, but the numbers are known to be under-reported and the true death toll may be three times as much.

The committee also said some states with no Ebola cases had canceled international meetings and mass gatherings, which the committee did not recommend. It acknowledged, however, that such decisions were complex and should be decided on a case-by-case basis and on the basis of risk.

Competitors and delegations from countries with Ebola transmission should not be subject to a general ban on attending events abroad, although the host country should decide on a case-by-case basis, it said.

Several countries — including Haiti, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Jamaica and North Korea — have restricted incoming travelers to some degree, although the committee has said there should be no general ban on international travel or trade. It reiterated that advice on Thursday.

“A general travel ban is likely to cause economic hardship, and could consequently increase the uncontrolled migration of people from affected countries, raising the risk of international spread of Ebola,” it said.

“The Committee emphasized the importance of normalizing air travel and the movement of ships, including the handling of cargo and goods, to and from the affected areas, to reduce the isolation and economic hardship of the affected countries.”

Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Catherine Evans and Hugh Lawson

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