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Gaps remain in India's Ebola preparedness, says WHO

By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India has been pro-active in preparing for an outbreak of Ebola, but authorities need to improve the surveillance of traveler and raise public awareness about the deadly virus, the World Health Organization said on Friday.

There are nearly 45,000 Indian nationals living and working in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria - where more than 1,300 people have died of Ebola in the worst outbreak of the disease in history.

There is also a large population of West Africans, mainly students, in India and there are concerns that the disease could be imported into the country.

Asheena Khalakdina, the WHO's Team Leader for Communicable Diseases, said while the risk of Ebola coming to India was low, it was important that authorities put in place the precautionary measures outlined by the organization.

"No country is perfect. You can go to any Western country and every country has areas where they can make improvements and certainly India is not an exception, so we are working closely with the ministry of health to see where those gaps are," Khalakdina told a news conference.

India's health minister, Harsh Vardhan, announced measures on Aug. 6 which included in-flight announcements prior to landing, informing passengers to self-report at immigration.

The government has also set up facilities at airports and ports to manage traveler showing symptoms of the disease such as fever, intense weakness or bleeding. Those displaying symptoms are being tracked for up to four weeks.

State authorities have also been instructed to designate hospitals with isolation wards for response to possible cases and to stock protective equipment.

Almost 500 passengers - mostly in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu - are currently being tracked, a health ministry statement said on Wednesday.

An Ebola hotline has received 619 calls in its first 11 days, mainly from the public seeking information on signs and symptoms of the hemorrhagic illness, the statement added.

"We need to educate and communicate so that we are raising awareness so that everyone knows what Ebola is and what it isn't, how it is transmitted and how they can protect themselves," Khalakdina said.

"It's good that people are informed and informed in the right way so that we can control public fears. It creates a lot of anxiety and fears, especially if you don't know about it."

(Editing by Ros Russell; Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers underreported humanitarian, human rights, corruption and climate change issues. Visit www.trust.org)