Ebola Response Hampered By Limited Air Travel

One of the major barriers keeping aid workers out of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is limited and unpredictable air travel. Many airlines don't want to have their crews overnight in an Ebola area or send them to a place where they can't get adequate health care if something goes wrong.

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Tomorrow President Obama is expected to announce more help to fight the Ebola crisis in West Africa. The affected countries desperately need protective suits, mobile labs, food and water. And they need many more healthcare workers. But even if aid agencies could recruit enough people, getting them into the Ebola-stricken areas isn't so easy. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: This is the worst Ebola outbreak in history, sweeping through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, leaving more than 2,200 people dead in its wake so far and ravaging communities. It should be the kind of crisis for which international aid organizations were created.

SOPHIE DELAUNAY: It easier to mobilize people for a typhoon in the Philippines than for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There's no doubt about that.

NORTHAM: Sophie Delaunay is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders. She says there's normally a more robust response by the international community to a crisis. But this one has been flat.

Delaunay says there is a desperate need for international aid workers. Even before the outbreak, there was a dire shortage of local healthcare workers. And they've been taking the brunt of the disease.

Delaunay says at least 150 have died, mostly from lack of training or protective equipment. That's created concern among international workers about access to adequate healthcare if they too are infected. Delaunay says Doctors Without Borders has been working on setting up a protocol for medical evacuations for its staff.

DELAUNAY: Because what the international staff wants is if they are exposed to the virus, they want to be able to be re-patriated and treated in their home country. It's a big challenge for us because most airline companies - commercial companies - have stopped working with this region.

NORTHAM: And even the flights with the few airlines that do continue to go into the area are limited and unpredictable, compounding the problem of getting international aid workers on the ground.

Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general for Emergency Programs at the WHO, says when aid agencies talk with the airlines, each expresses a number of problems. They can't get landing rights for refueling on the long-haul flights. There are concerns about over-nighting the crews in areas where there's Ebola. And Aylward says the airlines worry if their crews get sick.

BRUCE AYLWARD: It's not they're going to get Ebola. It's they're going to have chest pain or they're going to break a leg or they're going to have a headache. And none of - we no longer have our accredited medical-service provider in the capitals that are able to do that.

NORTHAM: Mona Aubin is a spokesperson with the International Air Transport Association, which represents more than 240 commercial airlines. She agrees those concerns exist for the airlines. But Aubin says it's within their rights to decide where they want to fly.

MONA AUBIN: All airlines obviously put the safety of their passengers and their crew foremost before they make any commercial decisions whatsoever. And as such, every individual airline has the right and the authority to make the decision that works best for them.

NORTHAM: Delaunay with Doctors Without Borders says aid agencies are pressing the airlines to open up more flights into Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

DELAUNAY: We've appealed to the governments to appeal to the airlines. We are also trying to mobilize some support and willingness to build up air bridges. So far the - again, there are lots of discussions, a lot of time spent in briefing about the need and explaining the situation and trying to convince. But there is no concrete plan put in place yet.

NORTHAM: Delaunay says handling the growing Ebola crisis is beyond the capabilities of the international aid agencies. She says countries like the U.S., the UK and France need to mobilize experts and resources to the region. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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