Airport screening joke

2014-09-04 00:00

A VISIBLY sick Pietermaritzburg man returning from an ­Ebola “hot zone” in West Africa was allowed to saunter through O.R. Tambo International Airport this weekend.

Graeme Dennis, project manager for a mining company, told The Witness of his shock, when neither staff nor thermal cameras at the airport flagged symptoms very similar to the deadly Ebola virus, as he stepped off a plane from Sierra Leone.

Suffering from “an aggressive strain” of malaria — and having actually been quarantined as a possible Ebola patient in the disease-hit country — Dennis said a thermal imaging camera in the immigrations area was the only screening given to him and 190 other passengers on the charter flight from Sierra Leone.

He said there were no medical staff on hand, and that no questions were asked — despite visible signs of illness, such as salt crystal formations below his eyes due to intense sweating.

Last week, the South African government placed a strict travel ban on all non-South Africans from Ebola-infected countries. Earlier, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaeledi said all South Africans coming from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea would be subject to strict screening processes, and must complete a comprehensive health questionnaire before they were granted access to the country.

Dennis said he had been suffering “a raging temperature, [but] the cameras or staff never picked it up” — and they were allowed to “walk straight through customs and out”.

“We all gathered around expecting to be inspected and the majority of us were taken aback by the lack of health awareness at the airport,” he said. “How many people are coming into the country that could be in the earliest stages of the disease and have passed through?”

Dennis admitted that he did not know his temperature on the day of his arrival.

Professor Shabir Madhi, executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said there was “simply no way to guarantee you won’t import an Ebola case through an airport”.

Madhi said the institute had conducted Ebola tests on samples from four people in South Africa in recent months, and that none was positive.He said it was possible the camera failed to detect Dennis’s illness because malarial fevers were “cyclical”.

“The important thing to remember is that even if a person with the [Ebola] virus does pass through one of our ports of entry, that does not mean there will be any kind of meaningful outbreak,” he said. “Ebola is not an airborne virus — you need direct contact with a cadaver or bodily fluids to infect.”

GRAEME Dennis had to greet colleagues by “touching elbows” in Sierra Leone to reduce the Ebola threat.

Yesterday, the Maritzburg mine project manager told The Witness of the painstaking tests and routines he needed to live and work in in the Tonkolili district of the stricken west African country.

Dennis said the mines had strict rules and an experienced medical team on site.

He said extensive lectures were given as soon as employees arrived in the country, and that chemical footbaths and chlorine rubs were orchestrated at least twice a day.

He said workers’ body temperatures were checked every five hours and — if there were any fluctuations — people were immediately taken into quarantine for further tests. Whether at work or at leisure, he said, “everyone wears long pants, closed shoes and long-sleeved shirts” at all times during the day.

No bodily contact was allowed. He said workers touched their elbows together instead of shaking hands. There were curfews in place and nightclubs had been banned, as no dancing in a crowded area was allowed. He said anyone travelling within 50 km of a town or district was pulled over for a chlorine bath and temperature check.

Sierra Leone has declared the outbreak a national disaster.

Despite these measures, Dennis ended up contracting an aggressive strain of malaria that saw him hospitalised at a mine clinic two weeks ago.

“The basic symptoms for Ebola and malaria are very similar,” he said. “I was quarantined as a possible Ebola patient. I was in tremendous … pain, had uncontrollable shaking and [blinding] headaches.”

After being found clear of the Ebola virus, Dennis was flown back to South


A DISEASE far deadlier – “and even more frightening” – than Ebola is stalking the streets of KwaZulu-Natal every day.

Yesterday, the executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases told The Witness he was “amazed” that South African fears were focussed on an exotic fever yet to affect any citizen, when KwaZulu-Natal was a global hotspot for a far more infectious killer.

Professor Shabir Madhi said XDR tuberculosis had a higher mortality rate, had no cure, and was much more infectious – and that, overall, 65 000 South Africans were killed by TB every year.

Although ordinary TB is curable, over 1 000 South Africans are killed each year by the killer XDR strain.

“There is a great deal of [hype] and fear about Ebola in this country, but unfortunately drug resistant TB is a more frightening disease, and a more painful death – patients actually cough up bits of their lungs. Its a disease that deserves much more awareness.”

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