Are we ready for Ebola? It's a question the German media have been asking for weeks. Frankfurt Airport has come under particular scrutiny due to its size. But could Frankfurt really be an entry point for the disease?
Ebola continues to rage in Africa. So far, the virus has claimed more than 1,500 lives in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But the deadly disease has stirred fears on the European continent as well, triggering a string of false alarms.
With several airlines including British Airways and Air France cancelling flights to affected countries, European airports have been on the alert for weeks. As Germany's biggest airport, Frankfurt has come under particular scrutiny. Over 58 million passengers pass through its sliding glass doors and terminals every year.
Don't ask, don't tell
The taxi drivers outside the airport's international arrivals terminal are concerned that one of those passengers could be carrying the Ebola virus. "I often have a bad feeling about it," one of them comments. "Every time I leave the airport here with passengers I always say: 'May I ask where you've just come from?' And then I can usually make up my own mind." He says he has even considered wearing mouth protection.
Two others say they have a duty to take people to where they need to go, and they don't ask where people have just come from. "What can you do? That's the way it is. We have to keep working," says one, and takes a drag from his cigarette.
Emergency medical care
The taxi drivers have to depend on airport safety measures and on passengers from affected countries making sure they get checked for Ebola. But according to Bonn-based journalist Abu-Bakarr Jalloh, that is easier said than done. Jalloh recently returned from Freetown in Sierra Leone, where he had been in close contact with Ebola patients on a reporting assignment. He was feeling unwell and tried desperately to get a blood test to confirm he was Ebola-free. He was shocked by the response of medical staff.
"You go to the emergency clinic and you would sit there for hours and hours and tell them 'Hey my case could be very serious, take it seriously.'" Even when he explained that he could be a carrier of the virus, he was told that emergency patients are the priority. "As long as you don't look like you're dying, you're not a priority," Jalloh said.
Jalloh says the response he got to his case in Germany has made him think that "the measures that authorities in Europe and airliners are taking aren't sufficient."
Staff at the regional health authority in Frankfurt would surely disagree . Chief public health consultant René Gottschalk estimates that employees there have been spending around 30 percent of their time dealing with Ebola-related issues in recent weeks. Every day, Gottschalk and his team meet in the so-called "Ebola crisis management room" to prepare for a potential Ebola case.
The team includes infectious disease specialists and a crisis management expert who liaises with the police and the fire brigade. The walls in the room are plastered with maps, health warnings and lists of emergency contacts, flight numbers and airports in Africa.
Of course, a large chunk of the Ebola-related work at the health authority currently consists of press requests regarding Frankfurt airport's precautions. His team has been so overwhelmed that it has gone from answering individual requests to arranging larger-scale events for journalists.
Gottschalk thinks that reporting on the disease hasn't amounted to scare-mongering, but that the amount of reports has stoked fears. "People read, see and hear more than twice a day that Ebola is a problem in Germany. But it isn't a problem."
Red, yellow and green
Gottschalk explains that there's a clear procedure for the event that a passenger suspected of having Ebola comes to Frankfurt airport: The flight would land outside the airport grounds. Passengers on board would then be classified according to how likely they are to be carrying the virus, using a traffic light color-coding system.
"If a passenger is marked red, we will transport him directly from the aircraft to the university hospital. Passengers marked yellow will enter the airport in a specialized area. Only passengers marked green will enter the airport and travel on," Gottschalk explains. The same marking procedure is used for other viral hemorrhagic fevers, such as Lassa fever, which are transmitted from person to person through bodily fluids rather than through the air.
There was a suspected case of Ebola on a flight from Addis Ababa to Frankfurt on August 15, 2014. But the passenger had tested negative for Ebola before flying and was allowed to travel on after being examined on the plane. An elderly couple who had been on the same flight told DW they felt "the airport staff did a good job. We felt safe and had the feeling that they knew what they were doing."
Isolating the virus
But if there were to be a case of the virus at the airport, an infected passenger would be taken directly to Frankfurt's university hospital, for treatment in isolation ward 68. The two-bed ward there is sealed off from the rest of the hospital, using airlock doors and negative pressure in the room.
Before entering, medical staff would put on sterile protective clothing, including an orange plastic overall, two pairs of gloves, rubber boots and head covering. A built-in hose blows filtered air into the hat and into the entire gown. That way, if the suit ripped, air would blow any potential bacteria out of the suit.
Not a European battle
Timo Wolf, a consultant in infectious diseases who runs the ward, explains that doctors at the hospital train in the isolation ward every three months. Wolf says working in the gear is "very physically straining," so staff need to practice performing medical procedures in the full-body suits, which he says feel like hot, heavy, scuba-diving suits.
Such preparations are very necessary, Wolf believes. "I think it's possible, if not likely, that in the next couple of weeks, we will be confronted with a suspected or maybe even a definite case of Ebola." Frankfurt's system is tried and tested, Wolf says. The ward has treated Lassa fever and had a SARS patient in 2003.
"I think that there's no reason to be afraid of anything now in Europe. I think that in the long run, this game has to be won in Western Africa," Wolf says.
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