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India goes on alert for Ebola, with thousands of nationals in West Africa

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 8 Aug 2014 06:28 GMT
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In a 2007 file photo, the first all-female unit of United Nations peacekeepers arrives at Roberts International Airport outside Liberia's capital Monrovia. REUTERS/Christopher Herwig
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian authorities are on alert for the Ebola virus, the health minister said, suggesting there is a risk the deadly virus could be imported into country if the large population of Indians working in the four affected West African nations returns.

There are nearly 45,000 Indian nationals living and working in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria - where an outbreak of the disease has killed 932 people, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told parliament on Wednesday.

"If the situation worsens in the affected countries, there could be possibility of these Indians travelling back to India," Vardhan said. "While the risk of Ebola virus cases in India is low, preparedness measures are in place to deal with any case of the virus imported to India."

Liberia has declared a state of emergency to tackle the worst-ever outbreak of the disease, its health system is collapsing. Officials say some major airlines have halted flights to the affected countries and many expatriates are leaving.

Though the vast majority of cases are in the remote border area of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, concern over Ebola's spread grew last month when a U.S. citizen died in Nigeria of the virus after arriving from the region. A nurse who treated him also died in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, and at least five other people have been isolated with symptoms.

In Saudi Arabia, a man suspected of contracting Ebola during a recent business trip to Sierra Leone died early on Wednesday in Jeddah.

Vardhan advised against all non-essential travel to the four countries, adding that authorities will screen travellers who originate from or transit through affected nations, and track them after their arrival in India.

In-flight announcements prior to landing will be done by airlines, and passengers will be informed that mandatory self-reporting is required at immigration.

The government will also set up facilities at airports and ports to manage travellers showing symptoms of the disease. Signs range from fever and intense weakness to internal and external bleeding and the incubation period is two to 21 days.

"The surveillance system would be geared up to track these travellers for four weeks and to detect them early, in case they develop symptoms," Vardhan said. "These persons would also be advised to self report in case of symptoms."

Of the 4,700 Indians in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, 300 are Central Reserve Police Force personnel - comprising largely women – serving as U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia. Nigeria has nearly 40,000 Indian citizens.

There are also 7,000 Indian troops deployed in other African nations, but not in the affected countries.

Vardhan said the troops will be informed of precautions to take to reduce the risk of contracting the disease, and returning personnel will also be tracked and monitored for symptoms.

State authorities have been instructed to designate hospitals with isolation wards for response to possible cases and to stock personal protective equipment.

The minister said the government also planned to spread public awareness about the disease through newspapers, radio and television. Information about the virus will be posted on the health ministry's website.

"Though there is no vaccine or curative therapy for Ebola virus disease, I want to apprise this house that outbreaks can be contained through early detection and isolation of cases, contact tracing and monitoring, and following rigorous procedures for infection control, if such cases were to report in our country," Vardhan said.

(Editing by Alisa Tang: alisa.tang@thomsonreuters.com)

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