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Isolation, cancelled flights hamper Ebola efforts in Africa

People wait for Liberian security forces to allow them to deliver foodstuff to friends and family members in the West Point area that has been hardest hit by the Ebola virus spreading in Monrovia, Liberia, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014.

Abbas Dulleh/AP

Plans for a massive "surge" of medical aid to fight the Ebola crisis have been jeopardized by airlines cancelling flights into the region, the United Nations has warned.

West African countries at the heart of the Ebola outbreak are increasingly sealed off from the world, their borders closed, their airports empty and their airline routes suspended. This isolation is now endangering the relief effort, UN experts say.

The flight cancellations, which are continuing to escalate, are having a "huge impact" on efforts to bring in health workers and supplies to combat the Ebola outbreak, according to David McLachlan-Karr, the UN resident co-ordinator in Sierra Leone, one of the worst-hit countries.

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"We can suspend other programs for several months to focus solely on Ebola, but we also need to bring in the surge," he said in a statement on Monday. "This is only possible if the flights return."

Experts at the World Health Organization and other relief agencies have been warning for weeks that the flight cancellations will hamper the Ebola effort. But the warnings were ignored.

The travel bans and cancellations are unnecessary because the risk of a passenger carrying Ebola is extremely low, according to the WHO and other experts. Only one such incident has been reported so far.

David Nabarro, a British physician who was appointed by the UN to co-ordinate its Ebola response, told journalists in Sierra Leone that the airlines are "isolating" the Ebola-afflicted countries and "making it difficult" for the UN to do its job.

In one example, a high-level U.S. medical delegation was nearly blocked from a visit to Liberia on the weekend because of cancelled flights. Brussels Airlines, one of the few airlines still serving West Africa, had to halt its flights to the region because Senegal refused to let its planes land in Dakar for crew changes.

The U.S. delegation, including the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was reportedly forced to scramble onto another airline, Delta, at the last minute – but Delta is also suspending its flights to Liberia at the end of this week.

Other airlines that suspended their flights to West Africa have included British Airways, Emirates, Kenya Airways and several smaller African airlines. Air France is one of the few airlines still serving Sierra Leone and Guinea, but hundreds of its crew members have been petitioning for a halt to the flights.

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The cancelled flights and closed borders are not only hindering the medical efforts – they are also cutting supplies of food and fuel to the Ebola-afflicted countries, threatening to cause serious shortages.

The Ebola outbreak, the biggest in history, has killed at least 1,427 people in four West African countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Another Ebola outbreak, apparently unconnected to the West African outbreak, has killed two people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to officials. No further details on the Congo outbreak were released on Monday.

In West Africa, one of the latest victims was a Liberian doctor, Abraham Borbor, who died on Sunday night despite being treated with an experimental drug treatment known as ZMapp. His death has cast a shadow over hopes that experimental treatments could help to stop Ebola. Two U.S. aid workers had earlier recovered when they were treated with ZMapp, but supplies of the drug are now exhausted.

In another development, Japan said it was willing to provide supplies of an experimental anti-viral drug, known as Avigan, for use against Ebola. The drug has been approved for use against influenza, but it is not approved for Ebola. A panel of experts convened by the WHO recently ruled that it is ethical to use unproven drugs against Ebola, under certain conditions.

In its latest emergency plan, the WHO is estimating that $430-million (U.S.) will be required from public and private sources to halt the Ebola outbreak over the next several months, reports say.

The planned "surge" of health workers and supplies is crucial because Ebola is taking a heavy toll on health workers. More than 225 health workers have been infected with Ebola and nearly 130 have died.

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