Kenyan Health Workers Fear Ebola May Take Flight
Kenya's international airport is on high alert, since the Kenya Medical Association has called on the national airline to suspend flights due to concerns over the Ebola outbreak. The airline has responded by pledging faith in its new screening procedures. The World Health Organization has labeled Kenya a "high risk" country for the spread of Ebola.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Kenya is on alert for Ebola. This week, the World Health Organization declared Kenya at high risk. The country is thousands of miles across Africa from the epidemic but it is a key regional transit hub. As we hear from NPR's Gregory Warner, a passenger could unintentionally carry Ebola there.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: If Ebola does come to Kenya, it will almost certainly be rolling a suitcase. This international airport in Nairobi has 76 flights a week to and from the four infected West African countries Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Even though Kenya has not yet seen a single case of the disease, the anxiety has already spread through social media and local news, and that fear's even altered one very stalwart African ritual - shaking hands. The security guard who escorts me to the airport doesn't offer me hand to shake and then apologizes for.
SAKINA OMARI: Come I show you in fact I don’t want to greet you. We don’t want to share hands.
WARNER: Sakina Omari tells me she's guarded this airport for nearly four years, but starting tomorrow she's taking indefinite leave to head back to the safety of her village.
OMARI: I'm going to leave.
WARNER: Because of Ebola?
OMARI: Because of Ebola. It's better to go back to my rural area.
WARNER: And while previous Ebola outbreaks in Africa have all started in rural areas and then edged towards the cities, if Ebola comes through this airport it'll touch down in a city of 3 million people. Deep inside the airport, Dr. Stephen Karau shows no similar fear of a warm African greeting. The chief aviation medical consultant for the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority grabs my hand with his meaty one.
STEPHEN KARAU: Don't worry Kenya still safe. God has been good - yeah.
WARNER: He leads me past a newly constructed examination room in this airport. It's still fresh with drywall, and it's here that passengers who show any symptoms will be inspected and if necessary, taken by special ambulance directly to an isolation ward at Nairobi Hospital. But Ebola can incubate up to 21 days with no symptoms at all.
KARAU: If you have no symptoms, we allow you into the country, we’ll continue policing you, and we’ll expect you to report to a registered medical practitioner every third day. OK? Until you leave the country or until the 21 days are gone.
WARNER: British Airways, and some international carriers, are not taking that risk. They've suspended flights to some of the affected countries. But not so Kenya Airways, the national carrier which sees all West African traffic as a major source of revenue. Airline officials say this decision to maintain the flights is in line with all international health guidelines, including that of the WHO. But the chairman of the Kenyan Medical Association says Kenya's public health system is far below international standards. Dr. Elly Opot said this to the BBC.
ELLY OPOT: As health care workers we will remain greatly concerned because when ultimately the disease comes in, it is the health care worker who will be on the front line. And unfortunately they will have to handle it in the face of poor infrastructure, poor working conditions, and so that even increases the danger of things not working very well.
WARNER: Kenya's crippled healthcare system may get another blow on Monday. Healthcare workers countrywide have threatened a walkout strike over unpaid wages. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.