MANILA, Philippines – In the wake of senators’ disapproval of some Cabinet officials’ gear-free visit to troops from Liberia who are in quarantine on Caballo Island, the World Health Organization (WHO) Philippines clarified on Wednesday, November 19, protocol for people coming from Ebola-affected countries.
“To catch Ebola requires direct contact with the body fluid of an infectious person. Patients suffering from Ebola only become infectious – that is only able to spread the virus to others – after they have developed symptoms,” read a WHO statement.
None of the 133 peacekeepers who arrived from Liberia last week tested positive for Ebola. The one who developed fever tested positive for malaria. The quarantine period will last for 3 weeks.
Acting Health Secretary Janette Garin and Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang did not need to wear a protective gear when they visited either.
WHO said Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is needed when one is “in close contact with a person who is displaying the symptoms of Ebola. PPE should only be worn by those people that have been trained in the correct way to use it.”
WHO added PPE is in limited supply across the world and should only be used when necessary.
WHO did not recommend Caballo quarantine
The WHO, in diplomatic language, earlier expressed its disapproval of the island quarantine for peacekeepers in Liberia. Quarantine is only recommended for people who show symptoms.
“WHO does not recommend general bans on travel and trade or general quarantine of travelers arriving from an Ebola-affected country,” a November 12 statement read.
“Current exit screening of all persons departing affected countries through international airports, seaports and major land crossings is recommended by WHO,” the statement added. (READ: ‘Fear-bola’ in US: Don’t catch irrational fear)
Garin earlier said the Philippines imposed the additional precautionary measure to “play safe.”
Military spokesperson Major General Domingo Tutaan earlier explained that the island quarantine was meant to “control the environment” and “limit exposure” in case some peacekeepers developed symptoms. It will be easier to contain it that way, he explained.
President Benigno Aquino III announced in August the pullout of Filipino peacekeepers serving the United Nations Mission in Liberia. The troops have since stopped their community engagements, restricted their movements to barracks and offices, and had undergone quarantine.
Before coming home, they all tested negative for Ebola in tests conducted by UN medical staff.
Garin and Catapang flew into Caballo Island over the weekend to mingle with the troops. They got flak for supposedly breaking protocol and for going there without wearing the appropriate gears.
Before the new WHO statement, DOH spokesperson Lyndon Lee Suy had said that “there is no need for the wearing of protective gear when interacting with the repatriated peacekeepers as long as they are ‘asymptomatic,’ which means they are not exhibiting any of the known symptoms of the Ebola Virus Disease and as such, they pose no danger of contamination or infection.”
In spite of repeated explanations from health officials, senators expressed alarm.
Senator Vicente Sotto III on Wednesday asked colleagues in jest if they would invite Garin to attend the deliberations on the budget of the Department of Health (DOH) next week.
“We were told that the reason they went there, and that goes also for the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, the reason is that they want to allay the fears of the troops. What about our fears?” Sotto asked.
Senator Francis Escudero echoed the concerns: “I completely disagree with what she did. Mali naman talaga ‘yun. At that stage she should have taken extra precautions and should not have done that…. Simple logic: kung siya p’wede bakit ‘yung kamag-anak hindi p’wede? Kung siya p’wede ba’t ‘yung media hindi p’wede? Ano’ng pinagkaiba. Buti kung siya lang, eh ‘yung mga alalay nila? To begin with, ilan ba, ilan ba sila, mga 30, 50?”
(It was really wrong…. Simple logic: If she could visit, why couldn’t the relatives of the soldiers? If she was allowed, why not the media? What’s the difference? It would’ve been good if she was the only who got exposed. How about her entourage? To begin, how many of them went there, 30 or 50?)
Senator Pia Cayetano, a known health advocate, expressed concerns, too. She said she will not greet Garin with a handshake or a kiss.
“Since I am unfamiliar with the DOH protocol, I would probably greet the secretary by placing my hand on my heart. That gesture is not really unusual. It is normal for people to say ‘Sorry, I can’t shake your hand or kiss you today’ when one has colds or an ailment,’” she told reporters.
On Tuesday, Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito also called Garin “reckless” and accused her of “violating the specific instruction from Malacañang to take extra precautions in handling the Ebola virus.”
Garin said, however, that Ejercito misinterpreted Malacañang’s instruction. “‘Extra precaution’ means ‘di ka kakamay, ‘di ka magbebeso-beso, and at the same time there’s frequent handwashing, and, pagkalabas mo, immediately nagdi-disinfectant ka sa kamay.”
(“Extra precaution” means you won’t shake their hands, you won’t greet them with a kiss, and at the same time there’s frequent handwashing, and, as soon as you get out, you disinfect your hands.) – with a report from Natashya Gutierrez/Rappler.com
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