The widening Ebola outbreak in West Africa may have another impact — on tourism.
The tragic epidemic, passed on through contact with blood or bodily fluids of the infected, has no cure and a fatality rate of up to 90 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
In a reflection of the worsening situation with the infectious disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday issued a Level 3 warning “to avoid nonessential travel to the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.” The World Health Organization has blamed the virus for causing over 700 deaths so far.
Even for travelers considering trips thousands of miles from those countries, in the more popular areas of East Africa or South Africa, health concerns could now prove a factor before booking.
“From a tourism perspective, the countries primarily affected by this Ebola outbreak are not what drives African tourism,” Max Rayner, partner of travel industry analyst group Hudson Crossing, told Yahoo Travel.
“But as was shown during the SARS and avian flu outbreaks, tourists and businesspeople considering travel to South Africa, Nigeria, or Kenya will understand that while on a plane, they could be exposed to other passengers who may indeed have come from the affected areas.”
Still, the ebola outbreak is not a reason to suspend travel to the other 50 African countries, says Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris. “It is a little more than 3,500 miles from Cape Town, South Africa to Freetown, Sierra Leone — about the distance from Los Angeles to Cali, Colombia,” he says. “And events in Colombia wouldn’t mean that people shouldn’t visit Disneyland.”
“We need to keep a perspective,” Francis Tapon, who is producing a TV series on Africa, told Yahoo Travel. Tapon visited the afflicted West African countries prior to the outbreak and noted that the odds of dying in a car crash are much higher than falling ill with ebola in those same countries. "It’s like people worrying about shark attacks or lightning strikes, yet they think nothing of driving 50 miles a day or smoking.”
For those considering travel to countries in Africa not under a travel ban, the usual precautions apply: Take your malaria pills and get the recommended vaccinations, advised Art Reingold, head of the Division of Epidemiology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
"The average traveler is really at no risk,” Reingold told Yahoo Travel. “The transmission entirely occurs from people who are fairly ill,” he added, who are obviously bleeding from their eyes, nose, and mouth. “Ebola is not spread by sitting next to someone on a plane. Most people who are at that stage of illness are too sick to travel and are in a bed.”
Those most at risk are health workers and family members in close contact with sick people, Reingold noted. (You can get more information from the World Health Organization.)
Travelers should use commonsense, too. “Transmission of Ebola requires close contact with the infected person. It is passed through bodily fluids — blood, saliva, sweat, etc.,” the Doctors Company vice president of patient safety Dan Wright told Yahoo Travel. “Make sure that you avoid affected areas and avoid people showing symptoms such as internal and external bleeding, high fever, muscle pain, and vomiting.”
“Travelers should educate themselves about the country they plan to visit by consulting government state & public health sites, seasoned travel advisors, and by using tour operators who have a long history in the destination and know it well,“ says Micato Safaris’ Pinto.
A CDC representative announced that it is “surging” its response to the area.
"This is the biggest and most complex Ebola outbreak in history. Far too many lives have been lost already,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said Thursday in a press briefing. “It will take many months, and it won’t be easy, but Ebola can be stopped. We know what needs to be done.” He added, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”