The East African region will remain on the alert even though reports indicate that the Ebola pandemic in West Africa is subsiding, officials say.
The epidemic which mainly affected Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone killed nearly 10,000 people since it began more than a year ago.
Early this week, there were reports that across Liberia, one of the most afflicted countries, children were returning to school for the first time after a six-month lull. The same was happening in Guinea.
Dr Alexis Nzahabwanimana, the Minister of State for Transport, told Sunday Times that vigilance at Rwanda’s points of entry “is still on.”
“What happened in Liberia was because there was just a decline in infection indicating that they are making effort in curbing the disease but it is not over yet as there are still hundreds of people getting infected,” Nzahabwanimana said.
“Even though children have returned to school, special hygiene measures were put up and a lot of precautions are being taken to manage the situation. An infected person can still board a plane and cause problems here.”
In the East African Community (EAC) as well, Nzahabwanimana said, “we remain in touch.”
“In Kenya, for example, thorough checks continue and the flight ban imposed on the West African countries most affected still stands. And even if they remove it, it won’t mean checks will stop. Everything will depend on the level of the risk. The Ministry of Health will inform us whenever it will see it fit to reduce preventative measures.”
Over a fortnight ago, Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary, James Macharia, said the national carrier, Kenya Airways (KQ), was waiting for the go ahead from the government to resume flights to West Africa that were suspended last year.
Nathan Mugume, spokesperson of the Ministry of Health, said it was good news that infection rates in the three countries were going down.
“We commend the efforts made by the affected countries, and individuals, especially health care workers who have been at the forefront of fighting the epidemic. To safeguard the health of Rwandans and people visiting Rwanda, the Ministry of Health and all other concerned stakeholders continue to implement preventive measures,” Mugume said.
East Africans are still urged to refrain from nonessential travel to affected West African countries.
In October, the region jointly contributed a team of medical workers, a total of 41 medical doctors and 578 other healthcare workers, and funds to support Ebola Virus Disease Containment in West Africa.
Mugume said that “the medics continue to serve until the affected countries are declared Ebola Free.”
Dr. Anthony Mbonye, the Commissioner for Health, in Uganda’s health ministry, also told this paper that the country would continue to screen people at all points of entry even though the risk was not very high now.
“The risk is not as high as it was thought before; the pandemic was contained in nearby countries such as Ghana and others.”
He said that coordination and collaboration between countries, through the World Health Organization (WHO) and EAC mechanisms continues.
“We are obliged to report if there were any threats. Furthermore, just last week, ministers from the EAC and southern Africa met in Munyonyo, Kampala, and we discussed matters pertaining to diseases such as Ebola.”
On Friday, the WHO approved the first rapid test for Ebola in a potential breakthrough for ending the pandemic.
The test, according to WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, is less accurate than the standard test but is easy to perform, and can give results within 15 minutes.
Early this week, a team of top international scientists called for new Ebola vaccines to be made available in months rather than years and warned against complacency after a reported reduction in infection rates.
Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest medical charity, is quoted saying: “Despite falling infection rates in West Africa, the risk that the current Ebola outbreak may not be brought completely under control remains”.
“We may see an end to this Ebola epidemic within the year if we continue with the current remarkable efforts, but we must not be complacent about the inevitable future epidemics of Ebola and other emerging infectious diseases.”
In a new report, the group said commercial vaccine manufacturing model was not a good fit for meeting needs to rapidly develop and deploy new vaccines.
It warned that the potential for Ebola to become endemic “was a real and very concerning possibility.”