Many of today’s seafarers come from countries where healthcare facilities are limited and may be unable to handle an outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease, which has already killed almost 900 people in West Africa. Three global shipping organisations have expressed concern about the potential exposure of ship’s crews to the disease and have issued joint guidelines to their members on the risks posed in countries affected by the Ebola virus.
Ebola emerged in 1976 in 2 simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The present outbreak has struck Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. There is no cure and treatment largely consists of mitigating he symptoms (See graphic). Nine out of ten people infected die.
The disease enters the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals. In Africa, infection has been documented through the handling of infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found ill or dead or in the rainforest.
It then spreads in the community through human-to-human transmission, with infection resulting from direct contact, through broken skin or mucous membranes, with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids. Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola. Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after recovery from illness.
Some 20 per cent of maritime manpower comes from the Philippines, for instance, the largest single nationality aboard. Although the country’s Department of Health has expressed confidence that it is prepared to handle Ebola infections its efforts appear t be focussed on Filipino workers arriving from West Africa rather than seafarers. However, AIDS, which has similar transmission characteristics is on the increase and may provide a model for how difficult an Ebola outbreak may be to contain.
The International Chamber of Shipping, International Maritime Employers’ Council, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation have urgently advise that on all such vessels:
- The Master should ensure that the crew are aware of the risks, how the virus can be spread and how to reduce the risk.
- The ISPS requirements on ensuring that unauthorised personnel do not board the vessel should be strictly enforced throughout the duration of the vessel being in port.
- The Master should give careful consideration to granting any shore leave whilst in impacted ports.
- The shipowner/operator should avoid making crew changes in the ports of an affected country.
- After departure the crew should be aware of the symptoms and report any occurring symptoms immediately to the person in charge of medical care.
The advice is supplemented with information from the World Health Organization on the virus (available here www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en)
A spokesperson for the three organisation says: “Everyone is deeply concerned for those suffering from the Ebola epidemic and supportive of a coordinated world response to help them. We particularly applaud all those medical staff who are risking their lives to help. In the meantime we want to make sure that those in the world shipping industry play our part in ensuring the safety of crews visiting the affected countries, and minimising the risk of the virus spreading further.”
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