Ottawa is urging any Canadians living in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia to leave the Ebola-ravaged countries while they still can, warning that the government cannot guarantee it would be able to evacuate expatriates who fall ill in West Africa.
Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development updated its travel advisories for the three countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak Friday with a new recommendation that Canadians, "consider leaving by commercial means while they are still available."
Only about 216 Canadians are currently living in the three countries, Health Minister Rona Ambrose told reporters in Edmonton Friday.
"We want them to think about coming home for two reasons. We know that if they’re nonessential personnel, we want those who are there to be able to focus on the people that are sick," she said. "We want them to be able to have all of those resources focused on containing the virus. We also know that those countries don’t have strong health care systems like we have here in Canada."
Canada does not have government offices in the Sierra Leone, Guinea or Liberia, meaning Ottawa can only provide "extremely limited" consular services in the area, she added.
Foreign Affairs had already been advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia because of the Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 4,000 people and crippled the region's already substandard health-care system.
Only a handful of commercial airlines are continuing to fly into the region. Now, even some companies that specialize in medical evacuations are refusing to service the crisis zone.
Ms. Ambrose also announced Friday that Canada is further strengthening its Ebola screening at airports.
Effective immediately, anyone who arrives in Canada from the Ebola-affected countries will be sent for a mandatory health assessment by a quarantine officer, she said.
Until now, travellers from West Africa would only be sent for a health assessment if they self-identified as sick or as having had contact with an Ebola patient.
"There will continue to be risk because the virus does not necessarily show itself if the person is not symptomatic," Ms. Ambrose said. "But we want to make sure that we take all precautions. If someone is just starting to feel ill on their way over in a plane, perhaps, then let’s catch it early. Let’s get them into the health system right away so they can get treatment."
There are no direct flights to Canada from Sierra Leone, Guinea or Liberia.
Earlier this week, the United States announced that it is stepping up screening at the airports that receive most of the travellers from West Africa after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who contracted Ebola in his home country, flew to Dallas, fell ill and later died.
Although Mr. Duncan was already infected with Ebola when he arrived in Dallas, he was not yet showing symptoms of the lethal virus, which can have an incubation period as long as 21 days. As his case shows, airport screening is far from foolproof.
Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. Patients are not contagious until they are symptomatic.
Ms. Ambrose stressed that the likelihood of Ebola reaching Canada remains "very low."
With a report from ReutersReport Typo/Error