South Africa has no confirmed cases of Ebola and its climatic conditions do not favour the outbreak of the disease, experts have stressed. However, South Africa is taking all precautions against Ebola, including thermal scanners at both OR Tambo International and Lanseria airports , which are able to detect travellers with raised temperatures.
South Africa has no confirmed cases of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVB), the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said on Friday.
West Africa is experiencing the worst outbreak of the disease in history – with more than 1 323 confirmed and suspected cases reported and 729 deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since March, the World Health Organisation reported on Thursday.
Cases have been confirmed in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. The WHO estimates the current outbreak has a mortality rate of 56%. While outbreaks of Ebola are relatively common, health professionals are concerned about the size of the latest outbreak.
The majority of cases are confined to rural areas, but there has been a reported case of a man infected with the virus arriving by plane in Lagos. The man later died. This has raised concerns that international air travel may help spread the disease.
The virus was first discovered in 1976. From 1976 to 1980 there were sporadic outbreaks. From 1980 to 1994, the virus disappeared.
“Since 1994, we’ve seen an increase in the number of Ebola outbreaks and most recently in 2007; a new virus was discovered in Uganda. Since 1976 until now, there were a total 23 large outbreaks. This is worrying,” said Prof Janusz Paweska, head of the Centre for Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases at the NICD.
As to where the virus is hiding, Paweska said recent studies that were undertaken, including the catching of various animals, found that it was most likely in bats, particularly fruit bats.
“It is maintained in the bat population and the bats in turn transfer it to other animals like forest antelopes and spread it to humans,” he said.
In central Africa, it is common for people to hunt bats, which become available as culinary dishes sold at markets.
The NICD stressed that the virus is not airborne and that real close unprotected contact is needed to contract the virus. The virus is spread through exposure to bodily fluids.
NICD Executive Director Prof Shabir Madhi said the outbreak was a localised one. “To put it into context, what we’re dealing with is a very localised outbreak in certain regions of the world. One of the driving forces behind that outbreak is the interface between humans and animals and cultural practices,” said Madhi.
South Africa’s climatic conditions do no not favour the outbreak of Ebola. Madhi said that Ebola would be present in the country through an imported case, which would not affect the general public.
“Such a case will be imported. We are not going to have a sporadic outbreak in South Africa. People that are going to be at risk from that imported case are not the general public but [will be] healthcare workers that will need to deal with that individual,” said Madhi.
There was no reason for the country to close its borders.
Head of the division for public health surveillance and response at the NICD, Prof Lucille Blumberg, said the symptoms of the virus are not specific but include fever and vomiting.
“If it’s a foreign national with confirmed Ebola, South Africa at the moment will not be accepting them. That is the policy. If a patient is transferred to South Africa – whether it is a South African or foreign national – and there is an unknown diagnosis and [there is a suspected case of Ebola], they will admit the patient, run tests and the patient will be cared for,” said Blumberg.
South Africans should not panic about the spread of Ebola to the country as every precaution is being taken to prevent this, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said on Thursday.
Motsoaledi said his department was closely monitoring the Ebola situation in West Africa and had taken the necessary steps to detect and treat cases if they arrived in South Africa.
Thermal scanners, which are able to detect travellers with raised temperatures, are installed at both OR Tambo International and Lanseria airports outside Johannesburg. Once identified, these travellers are assessed at the medical facilities at these airports.
“Our surveillance activities are extremely effective,” he said.
Motsoaledi said the National Health Laboratory Services and the NICD had also intensified their surveillance at the laboratories.
When the latest outbreak, which began in Guinea, was announced in April, the Health Department and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases issued an alert to all South Africa’s ports, provinces and the Civil Aviation Authority.
The alert aimed raise the detection levels of travellers who may be displaying symptoms or signs of infection. Health care workers were also informed to be extra vigilant when managing patients who have a travel history to West Africa.
“The department has been monitoring the EVD outbreak through updates provided by NICD, Promed, World Health Organisation and the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention,” the Health Department said.
“Outbreak response teams were alerted to be prepared to respond in the event a suspected case was identified in the country,” said the department.
Key facts about Ebola: WHO