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Delhi wakes up to Ebola

New Delhi, Aug. 6: India has asked its citizens to defer non-essential travel to four West African nations struck by outbreaks of the Ebola virus and has alerted its health surveillance system to track travellers arriving from these countries for up to four weeks.

Health minister Harsh Vardhan today said people should defer “non-essential travel” to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria that have cumulatively reported 1,603 Ebola patients, including 887 deaths.

The World Health Organisation has classified Ebola virus disease as a “severe, often fatal illness in humans”, with a case fatality rate of up to 90 per cent. Humans get the infection from infected animals or humans when they come into close contact with infected body fluids or secretions. The virus does not spread through air.

Vardhan, in a statement in Parliament, said the risk of Ebola virus spreading outside Africa was low. But, he said, India will seek details of travellers originating or transiting from the Ebola-affected countries to India. People travelling to India from these countries will need to report to immigration authorities in India, he said. “The surveillance system will be geared up to track these travellers for up to four weeks to detect the illness early if they develop symptoms.”

The minister said states were being requested to designate hospitals with isolation wards and keep ready protective equipment for health care workers and doctors.

Patients typically develop fever, muscle pain, headache and sore throat initially that may advance to vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes and impaired liver and kidney functions. Some patients develop internal and external bleeding. The WHO says there is no vaccine or specific treatment. Therapy is supportive, intended to keep patients alive while their immune systems try to fight the virus.

Vardhan said treatment and diagnostic protocols would be available on the health ministry website and the Indian Medical Association is being asked to provide the guidelines to its members.

Manish Kakkar, a senior microbiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, said alerting health care workers to recognise Ebola and correlate its symptoms with travel history of patients might be more important than trying to track travellers for up to four weeks.

The National Institute of Virology, Pune, and the National Centre for Disease Control, New Delhi, are ready with all the reagents required to detect Ebola, said Vishwa Mohan Katoch, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research. “But isolation is the key to preventing its spread.”

India has asked its diplomats in West Africa to track over 4,700 of its nationals in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, wracked by multiple outbreaks of the virus. “We are keeping close track of those of our nationals in these countries, their health status and their travel plans,” foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said.

Nigeria has had only four Ebola cases but has nearly 40,000 Indian citizens.