Ebola: Shipping lines may boycott West African ports

There are fears that multinational shipping lines may suspend their services to West African countries that are currently being ravaged by the deadly Ebola virus.

Already in the aviation sector, some airlines have suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the worst hit countries.

British Airways and ASky which brought the infected Liberian Patrick Sawyer into Nigeria, have already announced temporary suspension of flights into the two countries.

British Airways, which operated four regular flights a week from London Heathrow to Freetown in Sierra Leone with a connection to Monrovia in Liberia, confirmed on Tuesday that it was grounding the flights until 31 August because of “the deteriorating public health situation in both countries”.

As at Friday, many of the multinational shipping lines calling at seaports in West African have suspended shore leave as well as crew change in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.

“We have been following the situation for some time and sent out our first advisory to vessels calling at West African ports on 26 March. We have subsequently sent out several updates – to crews and land-based personnel – outlining additional health measures as per the WHO recommendations. We have also suspended shore leave as well as crew change in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea as well as in Nigeria,”  a spokesperson for one of the multinational shipping firms informed SHIPS & PORTS DAILY.  

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC), and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) on Monday last week issued joint advice to members on Ebola.

The groups issued strong recommendations to all vessels calling at countries affected by the recent outbreak. The advice includes ensuring crew are aware of the risk of ebola and the ways it can be transferred, adhering to ISPS requirements to safeguard against unauthorised personnel boarding the vessel, giving careful consideration before granting shore leave in affected countries, avoiding making crew transfers in affected countries and monitoring crew for symptoms after departing affected areas.

A spokesperson for the three organisations said: “Everyone is deeply concerned for those suffering from the Ebola epidemic and supportive of a coordinated world response to help them. We particularly applaud all those medical staff who are risking their lives to help. In the meantime we want to make sure that those in the world shipping industry play our part in ensuring the safety of crews visiting the affected countries, and minimising the risk of the virus spreading further.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday declared the outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ (PHEIC), with implications for trade and travel, after the largest outbreak ever recorded of the disease caused the death of more than 900 people, infected hundreds of others and continues to spread.

Under the conditions of the PHEIC, temporary recommendations to reduce the international spread of Ebola require that, with immediate effect, states affected should conduct exit screening of all persons at international airports, seaports and major land crossings, for unexplained febrile illness consistent with potential Ebola infection.

The fragile West African economy will be further weakened if the major shipping lines suspend their services into the sub-region.

Among the world’s poorest states at the bottom of global development indexes, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea had shown signs of leaving behind brutal wars and leaping into Africa’s economic boom before the lethal Ebola epidemic struck.

As the world’s biggest outbreak ravages the populations of these small states from West Africa’s Mano River region, their resource-dependent economies are reeling from the impact.

With the death toll topping more than 900, Ebola is crippling tourism, reducing travel and trade, and slowing farming and mining – delivering body blows to what had been buoyant GDP growth driven by increasing foreign investment, officials said.

“A common feature of these three countries is they’re all fragile states,” Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice president for Africa, said on a call with reporters.

“It means that they’re countries that need more support from the international community in normal times. … And this external shock that they’re currently facing, this crisis, is taking them even further back,” Diop said.

Liberia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, said on Friday in Washington said health care system in his country has collapsed over the Ebola epidemic.

Ngafuan said hospitals were closing down and medical workers fleeing from the Ebola epidemic, which is poised to worsen.

According to him, the number of trained doctors and nurses, already in critical short supply after years of civil war, is shrinking as medical workers get infected, quarantined or are afraid to report to work.

He said the country entered the epidemic with only about 50 doctors for 4 million people.

The three West African countries most affected by the Ebola virus, namely Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are overwhelmed.

Ngafuan said the countries stressed at a meeting on Monday with top-level US government officials, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Bank that a global response was critical.

Sierra Leone’s Foreign Minister Samura Kamara, also delivered a similar message in Washington after the three-day US-Africa Summit.

“This is a disease that is beyond the capacity of the three national governments.

“We need greater international awareness and support and it should be considered a global health crisis that needs a global response,”he said.

Meanwhile, as major gateways to the nation’s economy, Nigerian seports are vulnerable to the deadly Ebola Virus, according to Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Mallam Habib Abdullahi.

Abdullahi, who disclosed this in Lagos on Wednesday, said NPA has taken steps to ensure that the infected persons do not come into the country through the seaports.

He said guidelines have been issued to the organisation’s employees and port users on the risks posed by Ebola.

According to a statement signed by the Assistant General Manager, Public Affairs of the organisation, Mr. Musa Iliya; Abdullahi cautioned port operators, especially first line contact officers against negligence when dealing with foreigners and vulnerable groups.

He said, “We have begun enlightenment campaign at all ports and terminals about the origin, symptoms and mode of transmission of the virus.  They are also being taught how to identify people at high risk, diagnose, contain and prevent infection.

“The medical department of the NPA has equally issued guidelines to all its medical personnel on protection and prevention measures to be adopted in discharge of their duties.

“These precautionary measures to  be instilled in the workplace environment and in the port terminals will be carried out in collaboration with the Health, Safety and Environment Division of the authority.”

Abdullahi added that the measures were in line with the information from the World Health Organisation. He expressed sympathy for those who had contacted the Ebola virus in the course of duty but noted that the NPA would leave no stone unturned to make sure that port facilities are Ebola virus-free.

And at the Seme Area command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), the Port Health Services and other security agencies on Wednesday carried out a campaign to sensitize the border communities on the menace of the deadly virus.

Speaking with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY via the telephone, Customs Area Controller of the command, Comptroller Willy Egbudin said although the borders remained open on the orders of the Federal Government, the border communities were advised to maintain high standard of personal and environmental hygiene and the need to always be at alert.

Ebola virus disease is one of the world’s most virulent diseases, with a case fatality rate as high as 90%. The infection is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected animals or people.

The EVD is often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat, and followed by vomiting diarrhea, rashes, impaired kidney and liver function.  In some cases, there is both internal and external bleeding.

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