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India steps up watch for deadly Ebola virus

India's airports went on alert and the government opened an emergency helpline on Saturday (Aug 9) as part of measures to tackle any outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic in the country of 1.25 billion people.

NEW DELHI: India's airports went on alert and the government opened an emergency helpline on Saturday (Aug 9) as part of measures to tackle any outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic in the country of 1.25 billion people.

India has nearly 45,000 nationals living in the four Ebola-affected West African nations and health officials said there was a possibility of some of them returning to their home country if the outbreak worsens. The illness was declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organisation on Friday and authorities voiced fears the virus could spread worldwide.

India's Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said in a statement the country has "put in operation the most advanced surveillance and tracking systems" for the haemorrhagic virus. "There is no need to panic," Vardhan said, calling risk of Ebola cases in India "low".

There are some 4,700 Indians in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three countries worst hit by the disease, while another 40,000 live in Nigeria, which has also reported Ebola.

"What we are doing is that we've reached out to them, we have communicated information that may be useful for them in such circumstances,” said India Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin. “Number two, we are keeping a close watch in terms of travel patterns of non-Indians from that region. Because visa is required, we are aware of what the numbers are. Number three, our embassies are in touch with the Indian communities in all these regions."

The scale of the current West African Ebola epidemic has sparked fears of a wider, international outbreak, and while experts are confident that India can mitigate the risk they advise that great caution needs to be taken.

"There is not a high risk of the spreading of this disease in India,” said Dr Nata Menabde, WHO representative to India. “It is currently in the African region mainlyand it is assessed to be low risk in India and outside of Africa. But nevertheless, people travel, things can happen. India is equipped in terms of having all the systems in place. However, what matters most is that the systems are working without any failure."

OVERBURDENED HEALTH SERVICES?

But the New Indian Express newspaper voiced concern in an editorial that India's already overburdened health services could not cope with any Ebola outbreak. A country as "populous as India cannot afford to set up adequate isolation, containment facilities and equip medical personnel with protective gear", the newspaper said.

"If the situation worsens, there could be a possibility of these Indians travelling back," the health minister said. "Preparedness measures are in place to deal with any case of the virus," he said.

The WHO had informed India about a traveller who was possibly exposed to Ebola. He tested negative but has been told to report to authorities if he develops any symptoms, the ministry said. The ministry said an "emergency operation centre" helpline for reporting any cases started operations on Saturday and "surveillance is being strengthened at airports and ports".

The government is setting up centres at airports and ports to deal with travellers showing any potential symptoms of Ebola, spread through close contact with bodily fluids of people who who are sick. All air passengers arriving in India from Ebola-affected countries must now fill in a symptom-checklist form and provide addresses as the government builds a database to track people who might develop symptoms.

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