Ebola death prompts fears disease could spread through air travel

Unsettling questions over how to prevent the spread of the disease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 10:49am

No one knows for sure just how many people Patrick Sawyer came into contact with the day he boarded a flight in Liberia, had a stopover in Ghana, changed planes in Togo, and then arrived in Nigeria, where he died days later from Ebola, one of the deadliest diseases known to man.

Now health workers are scrambling to trace those who may have been exposed to Sawyer across West Africa, including flight attendants and passengers.

Health experts say it is unlikely Sawyer could have infected others with the virus that can cause victims to bleed from the eyes, mouth and ears. Still, unsettling questions remain: how could a man whose sister recently died from Ebola manage to board a plane? And worse: could Ebola become the latest disease to be spread by international air travel?

Sawyer's death on Friday has led to tighter screening of airline passengers in West Africa, where an unprecedented outbreak has killed more than 670 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia since March. But some health authorities expressed little confidence in such precautions.

"The best thing would be if people did not travel when they were sick, but the problem is people won't say when they're sick. They will lie in order to travel, so it is doubtful travel recommendations would have a big impact," said Dr David Heymann, professor of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The World Health Organisation is awaiting laboratory confirmation after Nigerian health authorities said Sawyer tested positive for Ebola, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said. The WHO has not recommended any travel restrictions.

"We would have to consider any travel recommendations very carefully, but the best way to stop this outbreak is to put the necessary measures in place at the source of infection," Hartl said. Closing borders "might help, but it won't be exhaustive or foolproof".

Watch: What is Ebola virus?

The risk of travellers contracting Ebola is considered low because it requires direct contact with bodily fluids or secretions such as urine, blood, sweat or saliva. Ebola cannot be spread like flu through casual contact or breathing the same air.

Patients are contagious only once the disease has progressed to showing symptoms. And the most vulnerable are health care workers and relatives who come in close contact with the sick.

Still, witnesses say Sawyer, a 40-year-old Liberian finance ministry employee en route to a conference in Nigeria, was vomiting and had diarrhea aboard at least one of his flights with some 50 other passengers aboard.

Sawyer was immediately quarantined upon arrival in Lagos and Nigerian authorities say his fellow travellers were advised of Ebola's symptoms and then allowed to leave. The incubation period can be as long as 21 days.

Sawyer had planned to visit his family in Minnesota next month to attend two of his three daughters' birthdays, his wife, Decontee Sawyer, said.

"It's a global problem because Patrick could have easily come home with Ebola, easy," she said.