herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Ex-minister's shock as flight crew wear Ebola suits to treat passenger

FORMER junior minister Barry Andrews has revealed his shock after a flight he was on was disrupted when a patient was isolated amid fears he had Ebola.

The CEO of the international aid agency Goal was one of four Irishmen on a flight in West Africa when a crew member put on a spaceman-like protective suit after the passenger fell ill. The male passenger was isolated in a cubicle at the back of the plane.

The incident happened on a Royal Air Maroc flight from Freetown in Sierra Leone to Casablanca in Morocco.

"Obviously it was a very unpleasant experience," Mr Andrews told the Herald.

"Goal has been heavily involved in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone so we are very well aware that it is not airborne, but seeing an air stewart head-to-toe in the full protective gear ... you wouldn't be human if you weren't a bit shocked by it."

The flight had originated in Monrovia in Liberia and had a stop-off in Freetown in Sierra Leone before the incident occurred on the final leg to Casablanca yesterday morning.

Both Liberia and Sierra Leone are epicentres for the recent Ebola outbreak which has claimed more than 2,400 lives since May.

Mr Andrews, a former children's minister, was accompanied on the flight by Goal media officer, Dave Williams.

"I was asleep and happened to wake to see a guy in the full personal protective equipment (PPE) walking down the aisle," Mr Williams said.

"It was like something out of film. We have been working on health initiatives for the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone so seeing that suit on the plane was quite a shock," Mr Williams said.

The crew member in the protective gear went to the bathroom cubicles at the rear of the plane and remained there for the rest of the flight. The incident started approximately one hour into the four-hour flight. Other crew members also wore face masks.

"We asked one of them why they were wearing face masks and he said, 'we think a passenger might have Ebola'," said INM photographer Mark Condren, who was also on the flight.

"We asked why the passengers weren't given face masks and he didn't have an answer."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued guidelines saying that while Ebola is highly-contagious through contact, it is not airborne and flying in or out of countries with Ebola is "very low risk".

Nonetheless, a number of leading airlines including British Airways and Air France have already halted flights serving West Africa.

"The relief effort very much depends on commercial airlines providing a service for clinicians, aid workers and supplies - and we hope this incident does not impact on that," Mr Andrews said.

"It brings home the reality of the work aid workers do and the reality of Ebola itself," he added.

FEVER

It is understood the sick passenger was a man who had a temperature of 39C. One of the initial symptoms of Ebola is a fever and high temperatures, and the body temperature of passengers flying from Monrovia and Freetown was taken a number of times.

Mr Condren and Mr Williams both attempted to take a picture of the scene on their smartphones - which were in airplane mode - only to have another crew member claim taking photographs was "illegal" and demand the photos be deleted.

hnews@herald.ie

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