Sick move: Australia shuts borders to 'Ebola-affected' African countries

Sick move: Australia shuts borders to 'Ebola-affected' African countries
Australia is the first country to temporarily close its borders to people traveling from West African states battling against the Ebola epidemic. The move comes despite the fact the Ebola-free country has not sent aid workers to any afflicted regions.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told parliament on Monday, Australia has issued a blanket visa ban for those traveling from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

"This means we are not processing any applications from these affected countries," Morrison said.

He added that all non-permanent or temporary visa requests from residents of Ebola-afflicted nations, who had not already departed for Australia, would be canceled or refused.

The ban includes those traveling on humanitarian grounds. He added that all those who had entered Australia prior to the suspension of its humanitarian program had undergone three separate health checks prior to their departure. They also were required to undergo screening upon their arrival in Australia on top of subsequent monitoring. Other permanent visa holders from the affected nations are subject to a 21-day quarantine period before disembarking to Australia.

"The government's systems and processes are working to protect Australians," Mr Morrison said.

AFP Photo / Stephane De Sakutin

Volunteer healthcare workers in Queensland, meanwhile, have been asked to submit to voluntary quarantine upon their return home. Some local governments have considered imposing mandatory quarantines on anyone believed to be infected with the virus.

Such proposals are being generated despite the fact that Australia has yet to register one case of Ebola on its soil, though several scares have been reported.

Nineteen people are currently in home isolation in Queensland after coming to Australia under a humanitarian program this month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. One of them, an 18-year-old woman, showed symptoms of fever but tested negative for Ebola on Monday. She will be retested on Wednesday.

According to the daily, 946 people at Australian airports had so far been identified as traveling from Ebola-afflicted countries. Two dozen travelers have been subjected to the full screening process, including being referred to human quarantine officers. No one has been quarantined in hospital.

The measure comes as the government mulls sending medics to West Africa to collect blood to help researchers develop a vaccine for Ebola, AAP reports. Australia has so far provided $18 million to the international effort to tackle Ebola, though it has committed no healthcare workers to the worst afflicted countries.

Adam Kamradt-Scott, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney's Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, told Reuters the travel ban would do nothing to shield Australia from Ebola. He warns it could in fact backfire by creating an overall climate of fear in the country.

"This is purely just a political decision," Kamradt-Scott said. "There is very little scientific evidence or medical rationale why you would choose to do this, and this is the type of politics we find starts to interfere with effective public health measures.”

A U.S. Army soldier from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), who are earmarked for the fight against Ebola, goes through decontamination process training before their deployment to West Africa, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky (Reuters / Harrison McClary)

Graham Thom, a spokesman for Amnesty International Australia told Reuters the move made very little sense from a public health perspective.

"There are ways and means in which people can be monitored, quarantined to insure that those who come are free from the disease," he said.

"All it does is insure that already exceedingly vulnerable people are trapped in a crisis area and sends a signal about Australia's commitment to actually dealing with this crisis in a responsible way as a member of the international community."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4,922 have died so far as a result of the ongoing Ebola epidemic. Of the 10,000 plus cases, all but 27 have occurred in the West African states of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

AFP Photo / Vladimir Benko

Due to its relative geographical isolation, the risk of a widespread epidemic breaking out in Australia is believed to be minimal.

Meanwhile, the US military has begun isolating soldiers returning from an Ebola response mission in West Africa.

The move followed controversial quarantine measures imposed on those traveling to four US states - New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida - who had had contact with the disease.

US federal health officials have resisted imposing mandatory quarantines on doctors and nurses returning to the US after treating Ebola patients in West Africa.

In one instance, a nurse detained and quarantined in New Jersey upon returning to the United States was released after threatening to sue.

Public health experts, the United Nations, and medical charities have all labeled such mandatory quarantines scientifically unjustified.