Viral containment


Graham Boynton

Should travellers to East and southern Africa be concerned about the Ebola virus? Or is the problem overhyped by the western media? Graham Boynton seeks some balance.

How safe are you from the Ebola virus in the Kruger Park? On Cape Town’s Waterfront? In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park?

Silly question? Well, it might be for anyone who knows Africa and has a fundamental grasp of the facts surrounding the virus plaguing some West African communities. However there is a hysteria currently being whipped up by sensationalist reporting that implies that all Africa should be off-limits to sensible tourists for the foreseeable future. And it is having an impact.

Tanzania has already reported a significant fall-off in forward bookings. Kenya, already suffering from terrorism-related stay-aways, is seeing visitor figures plunge further, while even southern African countries are reporting that the Americans and Chinese in particular are expressing reluctance to visit because of Ebola fears.

A recent article published by the Daily Mail’s massively popular website Mailonline claimed that the Ebola outbreak could hit 15 countries across the continent, “putting the lives of 22 million people at risk.” This apparently is according to “a ground-breaking study” in which  Oxford scientists have created a new map of places most at risk of an Ebola outbreak.

The Fleet Street Clinic’s Dr Richard Dawood, one of Britain’s top travel medicine experts, is enraged by the Mailonline story, slamming it as “very poor reporting, and a very poor explanation of a scientific piece of research that in itself was probably quite valid. They’ve done a terrible job; they’re just whipping up hysteria.”

Dawood says that while the disease may spread and there may be significantly more deaths, there is no reason why it should become an Africa-wide pandemic.

“All one can do for the time being,” Dawood says, “is to consider the facts as they are currently known, and that is that transmission, for the time being, is confined to West Africa, the numbers are relatively small, and there needs to be an urgent priority to bring things there under control.

“We’ve seen a drop in the number of people going to Africa and there is undoubtedly concern and alarm. It’s not based on any rational assessment of the risk. There is a risk things may change in the future, but no public health authorities are talking of a risk to travellers in East or southern Africa, for example.”

So, where does Africa tourism go from here? As I have said repeatedly in the past, the time has come for the various national tourist boards – the South African Tourism Board, the Kenya Tourism Authority, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, to name but three – to step up to the plate. Too much reliance is placed on the private sector and individuals like Dr Dawood to get the message out. Now is the time to properly inform the world’s tourists who currently rely on the misinformation of organs such as MailOnline, and to convince them that, until further notice, most of Africa remains as safe for travellers as it ever was.

October 2014