Fears over Ebola and measures proposed seem overblown: WHO

THE head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday said fears over an Ebola pandemic and the measures being proposed to prevent it seem to be overblown.

"Fear of infection has spread around the world much faster than the virus," WHO director-general Margaret Chan said in a message to health ministers and experts gathered here for the 65th session of the WHO regional committee for the Western Pacific.

Dr Chan said "90 per cent of the economic cost of any outbreak come from the irrational and disorganised efforts by the public to avoid infection".

"Getting the right information out is part of any good defence strategy," she said.

Dozens of US lawmakers last week pressed President Barack Obama to ban flights to West African countries worst-affected by Ebola, despite a WHO assurance that there was no need for such a measure.

The move comes as officials announced on Sunday that a health worker in Texas who treated Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan before he died was also infected with the virus. Mr Duncan, who caught the virus in his native Liberia, died on Wednesday last week.

There have been more than 8,300 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola infection, concentrated in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in West Africa. At least 4,033 have died.

Outside the US, a nurse in Spain contracted Ebola while caring for patients from West Africa, the first case of transmission of the virus outside West Africa.

Speaking at the same WHO conference, Philippine President Benigno Aquino underscored the importance of disseminating public information about the Ebola outbreak "without spreading fear and panic".

"I speak for myself and my government when I say that we will continue to exert every effort and undertake all possible initiatives to find answers to this question and keep our countrymen safe and healthy, as pandemics threaten to spread," said Mr Aquino.

Singapore's Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said Singapore is discussing with the UN and WHO on "what else do they need and see how we can do our part" in supporting global efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak.

Singapore has already sent an aid package to Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa. Two NUH experts have also been to Liberia to help with efforts there.

"We have always taken the view that despite the low risk, because of the limited travel between Africa and Singapore, we should not be complacent. We should continue to ensure that we stay on a high alert status, to continue to remind our health care workers, our hospitals, our doctors to be vigilant, to be mindful of the potential threat."

On Friday, WHO regional executive Shin Young Soo said East Asia is better prepared than most regions to deal with an Ebola outbreak because of its experience with other deadly viruses like Sars.

"We learned from that experience (with Sars) how important determination, surveillance system and transparency are, so that we are in better shape than other regions," he said.

He said "it's possible" that East Asia would eventually have to deal with an Ebola outbreak, citing the region's bustling trade and tourism, and army of migrant workers.

In a more emphatic statement, Philippine Health Minister Enrique Ona warned that "it's only a matter of time" before the Ebola virus finds its way to the Philippines, exposing much of East Asia.

He assured, though, the Philippines is prepared to deal with the virus, saying hospital facilities and measures used for Sars and the Mers-coronavirus as contact-tracing remain in place and are being continually upgraded.

rdancel@sph.com.sg