Air travellers are always weary of contagious diseases, but considering that over one billion people travel by air every year, one can understand the current panic over the seeming vulnerability of air travellers. But airlines always take precautionary measures. Whenever there are infectious diseases of high magnitude, airlines react by stopping operations to the areas where such diseases are prevalent.
It was when Ebola disease killed Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian American who visited Nigeria to attend a conference that the media became inaundated with the reports, the danger and literature about how to avoid the dreaded disease. Meanwhile, the fear of the disease has gripped Nigeria and the world.
The late Sawyer arrived Nigeria with Asky Airlines. For bringing him to Nigeria, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) banned the airline. Considering that Nigeria is a big market to it, operating about 30 flights to Nigeria every week, Asky decided to stop operations to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia where the disease is endemic. Before the airline was banned, Nigeria’s biggest carrier, Arik Air had decided to stop operations to these countries.
As if taking a cue from Arik and Asky, Emirates few days ago announced that it had stopped operation to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – the countries where the present wave of Ebola started. British Airways on Tuesday followed suit and cancelled its flights. But the industry and travellers are fervently hoping that the disease be halted urgently by concerned authorities so that more airlines would not continue to ground their operations to these countries because of the negative economic implication.
If the Ebola continues to spread, airlines may be tempted to stop operations to the whole of West Africa. This will be disastrous to the sub region. It will ground the West African countries, including Nigeria economically. Until last Monday, the only known victim of the disease in Nigeria was Sawyer, but it was announced that one of the doctors that attended to him was also infected. This has complicated the situation and the hope that after 21 days from July 25 when Sawyer died if nothing happened to those that attended to him, Nigeria would be declared free of the disease.
Air Travel and Infectious Diseases Literature on the spread of germs by air travel is replete with incidents of efforts to curtail spread which sometimes lead to abortion of flight operations. But fear is said to always be greater than the actual danger of infection. But informed sources said there are several important ways in which air travel can influence the global spread of emerging and established infectious disease. Infections may be spread on the aircraft through close contact and large droplets; airborne spread through small-particle aerosols, as in the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS); or even through contaminated food. Aircraft can transport infected disease vectors, such as rats or malaria-infected mosquitoes, as nonpaying passengers. Perhaps the greatest concern for global health, however, is the ability of a person with a contagious illness to travel to virtually any part of the world within 24 hours.
“The importance of air travel to the spread of seasonal influenza was recently demonstrated by empirical data showing that the spread of influenza was delayed by the decrease in air travel after the attacks of 11 September 2001,” reported Journal of Infectious Diseases.