BOGOTA -- Amid growing fears over the spread of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, several Latin American health ministers will meet Monday in Havana to agree on joint measures to confront the deadly virus that, at last count, has infected 9,216 people and killed 4,555, according to the World Health Organization.
The meeting by ministers of the ALBA group of nations, which includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador, comes as a growing number of countries in the region are banning travelers from Ebola-stricken nations in West Africa, and as members of the U.S. Congress are pressing for similar measures.
“Existing law gives the president authority to enact travel restrictions and to suspend visas from Ebola-affected countries,” Florida Republican lawmaker Ron DeSantis tweeted Friday. “Since [the president of the United States] won’t act on travel ban, Congress should return to Washington to vote on legislation mandating precautionary measures.”
Officials of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta expressed concern during a congressional hearing last week that such controls — which are not being recommended by the World Health Organization — could make it harder to track people who become sick.
One of the most aggressive stances in the region against the epidemic has been taken by Colombia. Last week, the South American nation began denying visas to anyone who has visited Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria or Senegal over the past four weeks.
Colombia’s Foreign Ministry also said it had begun screening Colombians and visitors from the 92 countries that don’t need visas to enter the country to determine whether they might be at risk.
At El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, immigration officials were asking visitors whether they had been to Africa recently or had friends who have been there.
In Venezuela, where import shortages have hit the medical system, authorities said they were prepared for the potential arrival of the virus. Health Minister Nancy Pérez said the country has spent $4.4 million to purchase 1,500 biohazard suits and other equipment. In addition, 23 hospitals near ports and airports are being prepared to take care of potential Ebola carriers, she said in a statement.
Governments in the tourist-dependent Caribbean are also pushing for tighter measures as a growing number are warning citizens against traveling to countries that have experienced outbreaks and barring entry to citizens of nations affected by the epidemic.
Immigration officials in some territories have been instructed to begin intensive screening of travelers and to quarantine anyone who may have visited an Ebola-stricken country in the past 21 days, which is the incubation period of Ebola.
“We have to take every possible precaution to not only reassure our citizens, but to protect the country because if we don’t, the damage could be huge,” St. Lucia Prime Minister Kenny Anthony said after his nation of 165,000 became the first Caribbean country to announce a ban on citizens of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
“We are an exceedingly small country with very limited resources and inexperienced in dealing with a global health crisis,” he told the Miami Herald.
While the number of travelers from West Africa to the Caribbean remains small, Anthony said he and his neighboring island-nations must be equally concerned about visitors from Europe and the United States, where there have been a handful of Ebola cases and where at least one person has died while being treated.
“The events in the United States have heightened awareness and reminded us how vulnerable we are,” he said. “We rely principally on tourism, and if, for example, there is any case in St. Lucia that sets off a chain reaction, we are going to be in very serious trouble.”
St. Lucia is not alone in its fears.
In Haiti, reports that the United Nations was seeking volunteers to fight Ebola in Africa prompted three government ministries and the office of national security to issue a statement banning Haitians from volunteering. The ban came on the heels of a request by Haiti’s health ministry to international agencies to suspend rotations to Haiti of employees from Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and any other countries facing the epidemic.
On the same day that Colombia and St. Lucia issued bans, Haiti announced stepped-up screenings at its international airports, with Health Minister Florence Guillaume saying Saturday that officials were working closely with international partners to prepare for a problem should one arise.
Other countries that have announced travel bans include Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize and Jamaica.
Jamaica announced its ban after an American man, who arrived there after visiting Liberia two weeks prior, was quarantined at the airport. The man was examined by Jamaican health officials and “found not to be exhibiting any symptoms of the Ebola virus,” the government said in a statement.
He has since left the island for the United States.
Brazil and Peru also have quarantined visitors from West Africa amid Ebola suspicions, only to give them the all-clear.
Fear of the virus has also spawned rumors, forcing health authorities in Ecuador, Colombia and Haiti to deny reports that they had received stricken patients.
After someone used the logo of Ecuador’s health authority to spread rumors on Twitter that Ebola was in the country, the country’s health ministry said it would press charges. The ministry said there had been “no suspected or confirmed cases” in Ecuador.
The Pan American Health Organization’s Haiti office was forced to issue a statement asking Haitians to be more responsible, saying that it was “indeed disturbing to see the growing number of unfounded rumors that the Ebola virus is in the land. These rumors are likely to ... cause panic in the population.”
But even as leaders issue travel bans, they have been forced to admit that there is little they can do and that they must rely on airlines and partners such as the United States and Europe to help them track travelers.
“The first defense in this is the airlines, who have to notify would-be travelers they are not allowed in the country,” said Anthony, who is also looking for increased cooperation among Caribbean governments. “We would have to put our security systems on alert, the regional security system that monitors movement of travelers.”
Dr. James Hospedales, head of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, said people should be concerned but not panicked.
“The likelihood of an imported case to the Caribbean is low,” he said. “While we have not had a case yet, the effect would be catastrophic, so countries individually and collectively need to strengthen their capacities to detect and respond appropriately. Meeting and sustaining the requirements of the international health regulations is the best way to be prepared.”
Hospedales also warned that travel bans could be counterproductive if they forced the illness “underground.”
“Travel bans can give rise to a false sense of security as they do not eliminate the risk,” he said. “So the countries, individually and collectively, still need to strengthen capacities, preparedness and response.”
Cooperation will also be key. Doral-based Carnival Cruise Lines recently tried to evacuate a hospital lab supervisor from its Carnival Magic cruise ship after being notified by the CDC that she was part of the team that treated Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola earlier this month in Dallas. Both Belizean and Mexican officials refused to let the lab worker disembark even after ship doctors declared her symptom-free and in good health.
Anthony, the St. Lucia prime minister, said the cruise ship incident raises concerns beyond airports.
“The nature of Ebola suggests that we need not only be concerned about cruise ships but we also need to think in terms of the traffic of ships across the region from North America down to West Africa,” he said. “We have to be careful.”