Travel in the time of Ebola: What it’s like to travel to West Africa during the outbreak

Mali

A woman walks past an Ebola health care center, rear, to be used for screening for Ebola virus patients at the border village of Kouremale, Mali, between Mali and Guinea, Nov. 17, 2014.
Image: Baba Ahmed/Associated Press

The threat of the Ebola virus in Mali was evident before I even entered the airport after landing in the capital city.

As I exited the bus carrying us from the tarmac to the terminal at Bamako, the passengers in front of me swiftly headed toward makeshift hand washing stations with signs warning of Ebola and instructing everyone to wash their hands for at least 20-30 seconds.

Next up — still before even entering the building — we had our temperatures read with forehead thermometers that set off one pattern of beeps for those checking in with “normal” temperatures, and another pattern for those who presumably were higher. A gentleman in front of me fell into the latter group and was pulled aside — only to be retested a couple minutes later and waved through.

Then it was my turn and, to my surprise, the same happened to me. Go figure I would come all the way to Mali only to develop a temperature on the airplane and be denied entry.

But no, after a second reading, I was cleared to go.

I started planning this trip to Mali long before Ebola hysteria spread across the United States. As a member of the board of the nonprofit Passports with Purpose, I was going to visit schools that we raised money to build last year. By September, as I prepared to purchase my plane tickets, the virus had not yet spread to the country that shares a porous border with Guinea. So I went ahead and booked the trip, acquired the necessary vaccinations and applied for my Malian visa.

In a weird twist of fate, the day I picked up my visa from the embassy in Washington, D.C. was the day that the first case of Ebola was reported in Mali. a two-year-old girl who later died, but who miraculously did not spread the virus to anyone else.

As my trip drew closer, I grew increasingly optimistic that Mali would be Ebola free by the time I stepped off the plane in Bamako. But then, a new case emerged at one of the top clinics in the capital. Soon, the Malian health authorities were tracing hundreds of potential contacts and the cases slowly started to rise.

But after consulting with multiple contacts on the ground in Mali, I decided to press on.

I spent a week in Mali, including two days in Bamako, two days in small villages in the southern part of the country and two days in Segou, about four hours north of Bamako. The threat of Ebola was visible, but not overwhelmingly so.

Ebola billboard

A billboard in Mali warns people to take precautions against catching Ebola.

Image: Katie Aune

Public buildings in Bamako and other cities had hand washing stations set up near the door. Billboards throughout Bamako advised on how to prevent Ebola and provided hotline numbers for people to call.

Random precautions were everywhere — I even had my temperature taken as I went to enter a cell phone store in Bamako to buy a SIM card. People seemed less likely to use a handshake as a greeting. In one case, I even saw someone pull his hand away from the outstretched hand of his friend, smiling and laughing as he said, “Ebola, Ebola.” While it seemed he was joking, he never did shake his hand.

In the villages, far away from billboards and television reports, the Ebola threat was much less visible.

Greetings continued as usual, although I was told I didn’t need to shake people’s hands if I didn’t feel comfortable.

However, traditions like drinking out of the same cup and eating with hands out of the same large bowl continued. Villagers may wash their hands before a meal, but if an infected person is eating out of the same bowl, all it would take is for them to lick their fingers before digging back into the bowl to spread the virus.

I left Mali by bus after a week to continue my trip on to Burkina Faso. As I crossed the Mali side of the border, I saw a table set up with two men in medical gear who seemed to be testing travelers coming from Burkina. I assumed the large white tent I saw was to be used to isolate anyone if necessary. As I headed the other direction, Malian officials did nothing to test me as I left, but Burkina officials required hand washing and temperature checking before I could continue on to passport control.

Another week later, I flew back to the United States via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There, my temperature was taken as soon as I entered the airport to transfer flights and if I had stayed in the country, I would have had to complete a detailed health questionnaire.

When I landed at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C., I was asked as I went through Global Entry whether I had traveled to Ebola-affected countries, including Mali.
Upon answering yes, I was flagged and taken back for enhanced screening. This consisted of getting my temperature taken (It was normal.) and then waiting 45 minutes while airport security found someone from U.S. Customs & Border Patrol to ask me screening questions.

The agent who screened me admitted he had never done it before. Aside from giving me a packet of Ebola information and a thermometer, he offered no instructions.

However, the next day I got a call from someone with the department of health in my home city who informed me that I needed to report my temperature morning and night until a total of 21 days have passed since I left Mali. She assured me this is really out of an abundance of caution, since I am considered extremely low risk.

Mali only had a handful of cases and the president actually declared the country Ebola free while I was there. However, the World Health Organization requires a few more weeks with no more cases before Mali is officially cleared.

As for me, I’ll dutifully take my temperature for the next two weeks as I edit photos, write a few blog posts and reflect upon an amazing trip, thankful that I relied on logic instead of fear as I decided whether or not to go in the first place.

Katie Aune quit her job in 2011 to travel throughout the former Soviet Union — a journey that included riding the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, teaching English in Tajikistan, volunteering in Armenia, camping out in Turkmenistan and trying her best to speak Russian on a daily basis. Now back home in Chicago, she works full-time in fundraising while traveling as much as possible and writing about her adventures on KatieAune.com.

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Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/12/16/travel-during-ebola/

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