Washington/Sydney, October 29 2014:Â The U.S. military has isolated soldiers returning from an Ebola response mission in West Africa and Australia imposed a visa ban on the affected countries, policies that critics said would have little benefit but could feed a global panic.
Ebola has killed nearly 5,000 people since March, mostly in West Africa, but nine cases in the United States prompted states such as New York and New Jersey to ignore federal advice and quarantine all health workers returning from the region.
The United Nations criticized the U.S. states’ mandatory quarantine imposed on those returning from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“Returning health workers are exceptional people who are giving of themselves for humanity,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said. “They should not be subjected to restrictions that are not based on science.”
The World Health Organization said it feared the quarantine measures could put people off volunteering to go to Africa.
“We desperately need international health workers … They are really the key to this response,â€ WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.
Australia is the first rich country to impose a visa ban on the three countries hit by Ebola, prompting anger across Africa.
“Western countries are creating mass panic which is unhelpful in containing a contagious disease like Ebola,” said Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo.
“If they create mass panic … this fear will eventually spread beyond ordinary people to health workersÂ or people who transport the sick and then what will happen? Entire populations will be wiped out.”
Eighty-two people who had contact with a toddler who died of Ebola in Mali last week are being monitored, the WHO said, but no new cases have been reported there.
Mali became the sixth West African country to report a case of the disease. Senegal and Nigeria both stopped the virus by tracking down people who had contact with the person who brought it into their country and monitoring them for symptoms.
MAJOR GENERAL IN ISOLATION
NATO said it was talking with the United Nations about what help the Western military alliance might be able to provide.
â€œThe question is not whether NATO allies are contributing in fighting Ebola. The question is whether this is best organized through a NATO structure, and thatâ€™s too early to say,â€ NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
American soldiers returning from West Africa are being isolated, even if they show no symptoms and are not believed to have been exposed to the virus.
Army said Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno ordered the 21-day monitoring period “to ensure soldiers, family members and their surrounding communities are confident that we are taking all steps necessary to protect their health.”
The Army isolated about a dozen soldiers on their return during the weekend to their home base in Vicenza, Italy. That included Major General Darryl Williams, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, who oversaw the military’s initial response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
“We are billeted in a separate area. There’s no contact with the general population or with family. No one will be walking around Vicenza,” Williams told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The U.S. military has repeatedly stressed that its personnel are not interacting with Ebola patients and are instead building treatment units to help health authorities battle the epidemic. Up to 4,000 U.S. troops may be deployed on the mission.
Dr. Jeff Duchin, chairman of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said the isolation was not a necessary step. “From a public health perspective, we would not feel that isolation is appropriate,” he said.
The decision goes well beyond established military protocols and came as President Barack Obama’s administration sought to discourage quarantines being imposed by some U.S. states.
QUESTIONS OVER QUARANTINE
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), called for isolation of people at the highest risk for Ebola infection but said most returning medical workers would require monitoring without isolation.
“At CDC, we base our decisions on science and experience … And as the science and experience changes, we adopt and adapt our guidelines and recommendations,” Frieden said.
Australia has not recorded a case of Ebola despite a number of scares, and conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott has so far resisted repeated requests to send medical personnel to help battle the outbreak on the ground.
Its decision to refuse entry for anyone from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, while touted by the government as a necessary safety precaution, was criticized by experts and advocates as politically motivated and shortsighted.
Adam Kamradt-Scott, of the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, said the ban would do nothing to protect the country from Ebola while potentially having a negative public health impact by creating a general climate of panic.
Medical professionals say Ebola is difficult to catch and is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person and not transmitted by asymptomatic people. Ebola is not airborne.
“Anything that will dissuade foreign trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the frontline to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate,” Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission (UNMEER), told Reuters in the Ghanian capital Accra.
He said that health workers returning to their own countries should be treated as heroes.