Ebola virus outbreak will not change plans for Obama to host African leaders summit

Dylan Stableford, Yahoo News
Ebola virus outbreak will not change plans for Obama to host African leaders summit

Fear over Africa's expanding Ebola outbreak will not alter plans for President Barack Obama to host leaders from nearly 50 African nations for the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the White House said.

The three-day gathering, which kicks off Monday, is set to be the largest event any president ever has held with African heads of state and government.

Obama extended invitations to 50 countries, including those hardest hit by the virus: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. More than 1,300 cases of Ebola have been reported in those countries since February, according to the World Health Organization, and at least 729 people have died, including 339 in Guinea alone.

Health officials say this Ebola outbreak is the largest in history, and news that a man carrying the virus traveled from Liberia to Nigeria on a plane last week has sparked fears that the deadly disease could spread to other continents via air travel.

The State Department Thursday issued a warning for Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the U.S. Peace Corps said it was pulling all 340 of its volunteers from the region.

"The bottom line is Ebola is worsening in West Africa," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.

Despite the travel warning, the White House says the summit will go on as scheduled.

"We have no plans to change any elements of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, as we believe all air travel continues to be safe here," deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters Wednesday.

Earlier Thursday, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma and  Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf both canceled their trips to the event. (Sirleaf said she would send a deputy instead.)

An official at Guinea's U.S. Embassy told Yahoo News that it was still planning to send a delegation to the summit. A representative for the Nigerian Embassy in Washington did not return a request seeking comment.

On Sunday, Sirleaf ordered most of Liberia's border crossings closed and communities affected by the Ebola outbreak quarantined. At least 158 people have died from the disease there, according to health officials.

Two American health workers infected with Ebola in Liberia — Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol — are in "stable but grave condition," their North Carolina-based Christian relief group said Thursday.

Last month, the family of a top Liberian government official and former Minnesota resident, who became sick on a flight to Nigeria and later died, said he had planned to travel to the United States in early August.

The CDC maintains the risk of Ebola spreading to the United States is unlikely since the virus is not airborne.

"The risk to most travelers is low," a message posted to the U.S. Embassy's website in Liberia reads, "but travelers could be infected if they come into contact with an ill person’s blood or body fluids, sick wildlife, or infected bushmeat."

But even if someone infected with Ebola made it to the United States, the risk of an outbreak is considered very low, Frieden said. The CDC has staffers at 20 U.S. airports and border crossings ready to evaluate any travelers with signs of Ebola and isolate them if necessary, he said.

WHO said on Thursday it is not recommending any travel restrictions or border closures due to the Ebola outbreak, and that there would be a low risk to other passengers if an Ebola patient flew, Reuters reported.

The State Department, which is organizing next week's summit, says it is monitoring the situation closely but is ready to welcome the African dignitaries to Washington.

"We have protocols in place to assist official visitors to the US-Africa Leaders Summit with health-related issues," a State Department official said.