Tommy Trenchard / Reuters

Ebola outbreak forces West African airline to halt flights

Move comes as Sierra Leone’s top doctor succumbed to the deadly virus

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has killed more than 670 people is forcing affected countries to take action in an effort to negate the spread of the deadly disease that on Tuesday claimed the life Sierra Leone’s top doctor who had been instrumental in the fight against the virus. 

Among the measures taken on Tuesday was ASKY Airlines, a major regional airline, announcing that it was suspending flights to two of the cities hardest hit by the outbreak — Monrovia, Liberia and Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

Flights will still continue to the capital of the third major country where people have died — Guinea — though passengers departing from there will be screened for signs of the virus, which includes checking for fever, according to a statement by ASKY. 

Passengers at the airline's hub in Lome, Togo also will be screened by medical teams, ASKY said, adding that it was “is determined to keep its passengers and staff safe during this unsettling time.” 

A 40-year-old American man of Liberian descent, Patrick Sawyer, who worked for the West African nation's Finance Ministry died Friday in Nigeria after taking several flights on ASKY Airlines. At the time, Liberian authorities said they had not been requiring health checks of departing passengers in Monrovia.

He took an ASKY Airlines flight from Liberia to Ghana, then on to Togo and eventually to Nigeria where he was immediately taken into quarantine until his death Friday.

The Liberian Football Association has also decided to suspend all football activities in the country in order to protect players and fans, BBC News reported.

Meanwhile, Sierra Leone’s top doctor fighting Ebola died from the virus on Tuesday, the country’s chief medical officer, Brima Kargbo, said. 

Sheik Umar Khan, who was credited with treating more than 100 patients, was infected with Ebola this month and had been moved to a treatment ward run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders in the far north of the country.

The 39-year-old has been hailed as a "national hero" by the country’s health minister and was leading the fight to control an outbreak that has killed at least 224 people in Sierra Leone.

The news follows the death of one of Liberia’s most high-profile doctors, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, this weekend. Brisbane, who once served as a medical adviser to former Liberian President Charles Taylor, was working as a consultant with the internal medicine unit at Liberia's largest hospital, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia's capital.

His death coincided with news that an American doctor and an aid worker had contracted the virus. In response, two North Carolina-based missionary groups sponsoring them — Samaritan's Purse and SIM USA — announced on Tuesday that they would evacuate non-essential personnel from Liberia. 

Understanding the outbreak

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola and the case fatality rate of the current outbreak is about 55 percent, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) figures released on July 25. Those figures show a total of 1,201 cases, with 672 deaths recorded so far across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The death tolls tally includes cases in which are confirmed Ebola deaths as well as those categorized as probable and suspected Ebola-related deaths. 

The WHO says the risk of travelers contracting Ebola is considered low because it requires direct contact with bodily fluids or secretions such as urine, blood, sweat or saliva, experts say. Ebola can't be spread like flu through casual contact or breathing in the same air.

Patients are contagious only once the disease has progressed to the point they show symptoms, according to the WHO. And the most vulnerable are health care workers and relatives who come in much closer contact with the sick. Among those currently hospitalized with Ebola in Liberia are two American health workers, including a doctor working for the Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse.

Still, the early symptoms of Ebola — fever, aches and sore throat — mirror many other diseases including malaria and typhoid, experts say. Only in later stages of Ebola do patients sometimes experience severe internal bleeding and blood coming out of their mouth, eyes or ears.

At the Finance Ministry where Sawyer worked, officials announced they were temporarily shutting down operations. All employees who came into contact with Sawyer before he left for Nigeria were being placed under surveillance, it said.

Despite the heightened precautions and reassurances from health workers, many Liberians said they were still fearful of contracting Ebola through casual contact.

Sam Mitchell who runs Sam's Barbeque, Monrovia's most popular fast food center, has issued gloves to his workers and they are to wash their hands with chlorinated water before dealing with customers,

Garmie Gayflor, a hotel waitress, said that poverty was undermining the fight in her country.

"One does not have a car, and they say sweat from one affected person affects the others," she told The Associated Press. "We have six to seven person riding in the back of a taxi or bus."

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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