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Saudi Arabia bans travellers from DRC before Hajj over Ebola fears

  • 26 Jul 2019

The virus has killed more than 1,700 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the world's second-worst outbreak was declared almost a year ago and is threatening to spill over its borders.

Health workers collect data before administering Ebola vaccines to civilians at the Himbi Health Centre in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 17, 2019. ( Reuters )

Saudi Arabia has banned entry to travellers coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo over fears Ebola could spread during next month's Hajj pilgrimage.

The decision, announced in a note issued on Wednesday by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cited last week's decision by the World Health Organization to declare the Ebola outbreak an international emergency.

The WHO committee, however, had urged countries not to restrict trade or travel.

"The granting of arrivals visas for people entering from DRC has been stopped, to conserve the wellbeing of pilgrims," the ministry's note said.

The outbreak has killed over 1,700 people since it was declared nearly a year ago.

About three percent of DRC's population is Muslim, according to polling by the New York-based Congo Research Group. People from sub-Saharan Africa make up about 10 percent of the more than two million annual pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia suspended pilgrimage visas for travellers from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people.

Second Ebola vaccine

Meanwhile, the UN said on Friday that DRC's new Ebola response coordinator is considering the use of a second vaccine after the health minister resigned over the controversial issue.

It's the first time vaccines have been deployed against the killer virus discovered in 1976.

A vaccine by drugmaker Merck is being widely used in the affected provinces of Ituri and North Kivu.

But WHO has recommended the introduction of a second product made by healthcare company Johnson & Johnson, which could be used for populations removed from the epicentre, while saving limited stocks of the Merck vaccine for the frontlines.

More US help sought

WHO also said the US could bolster the battle against the virus by allowing more of its experts to travel to the outbreak zone.

The virus is threatening to spread to the major city of Goma or spill over DRC's border into Uganda.

Poor security in the affected areas has hampered efforts to contain the outbreak and calls are growing for foreign aid agencies to deploy more staff on the ground.

This month former US Ebola response coordinator Ronald Klain called on the White House to reverse its policy of keeping US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) staff out of outbreak zones, and Britain has said too many countries were using security as an excuse not to send people to the front line.

WHO currently has over 600 staff in the field, with 200,000 person-days spent in the field in total, but emergencies chief Mike Ryan told reporters that many agencies could redouble their efforts and deploy more people in the field.

"It is hard to fight a battle without your best ally at your side," Ryan told reporters when asked about CDC's deployment.

"But our colleagues in CDC have provided amazing support, both in DRC, in the surrounding countries, here in Geneva, in our operation centres in backstopping and providing high-level technical assistance to the response," Ryan said.

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