Epidemics require rational approach

2014-09-17 20:06
A nurse disinfecting a doctor's protective gear at the French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres ELWA hospital in Monrovia. (Zoom Dosso, AFP)

A nurse disinfecting a doctor's protective gear at the French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres ELWA hospital in Monrovia. (Zoom Dosso, AFP)

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Pretoria - Less restrictive means should always be implemented to control epidemics, Frans Viljoen, director of the University of Pretoria’s centre for human rights, said on Wednesday.

"All rights may be limited but only if there is a justifiable motivation that substantiates the limitation. If we take measures in this epidemic they should be justifiable," he said at a University of Pretoria panel discussion on South Africa’s preparedness for Ebola.

Restrictions of movement had implications for national economies, freedom of movement, family life, and human dignity.

"We should consider the competing interests. It would be justifiable if there is a pressing societal purpose [like] saving life and preventing further infections," he said.

"There should be scrutiny on whether the measures are going to achieve the laudable aim. From the HIV epidemic, we have learnt that coercion, forcing people to be tested once they present themselves at a medical facility, was not the way to go."

He said people who did not want to be tested for HIV would go "underground" and infect others.

Last month, government issued travel embargoes for non-citizens arriving from Ebola-affected West African countries - Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said screening procedures were in place for visitors from Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. These had been categorised as medium-risk countries.

Travel bans

Viljoen said it was critical for government to educate South Africans about Ebola, which would encourage disclosure by victims.

"I am sure there is a strategy in place but I think we have not heard much of that informational message. Non-coercive presentation of information is the crux of the matter," he said.

Implementing a travel restriction to a slightly affected country like Nigeria would be irrational.

"Why should there be restrictions placed on Nigerians if there have been eight cases that have been very carefully traced and resolved?

"It is as if we are saying if there is one or two cases that, God forbid, should be identified in South Africa, then South Africa is presented as a high-risk country and South Africans are prevented from travelling to other countries," he said.

United States President Barack Obama issued a global call to action on Tuesday to fight the West African Ebola epidemic. He warned that the deadly outbreak was unprecedented and "spiralling out of control", threatening hundreds of thousands of people.

Speaking as he unveiled a major new US intervention plan which would see 3 000 US military personnel deployed to West Africa to combat the growing health crisis, Obama said the outbreak was spreading exponentially.

Under the plan, the government could end up devoting $1bn to contain the disease that has already killed at least 2 400 people.

Nearly 5 000 people have become ill from Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, and Senegal, since it was first recognised in March.

The World Health Organisation anticipates that figure could rise to more than 20 000 and end up costing nearly $1bn to contain.

The UN Security Council would hold an emergency meeting on Thursday on the crisis. The head of the United Nations said the General Assembly would follow up with a high-level meeting next week as the world body "is taking the lead now" on the international fight.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon welcomed Obama's plan, his spokesperson said in a statement, and called on the international community "to be as bold and courageous in its response as those who are on the front lines fighting this disease".

Read more on:    ebola  |  health  |  west africa

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