Updated | Malta turns away merchant ship over Ebola suspicion

Ship that left from Guinea en route to Ukraine requested medical assistance from Malta • Symptoms reported ‘matched case definition of Ebola’

The Western Copenhagen (bulk carrier) Photo: fleetmon.com
The Western Copenhagen (bulk carrier) Photo: fleetmon.com
Location and route of the MV Western Copenhagen as at 5.38pm, sailing away from Italy. Photo vesselfinder.com
Location and route of the MV Western Copenhagen as at 5.38pm, sailing away from Italy. Photo vesselfinder.com
Location and route of the MV Western Copenhagen as at 4.44pm on Thursday. (vesselfinder.com)
Location and route of the MV Western Copenhagen as at 4.44pm on Thursday. (vesselfinder.com)

The Maltese authorities refused entry to a merchant vessel on suspicion that at least one person on board could have been infected by the Ebola virus.

The Armed Forces of Malta’s maritime shadowed the ship to ensure that the ship does not enter Maltese waters. At 11am, the ship headed north towards Sicily. The Italian authorities have now taken the patient. A patrol boat picked up the Filipino patient from on board the ship, while MV Western Copenhagen continued on with its way towards Ukraine.

There were indiciations of at least another suspected case on board but no information is available as yet.

MaltaToday is informed that the first time captain noticed the symptoms was on the night between Monday and Tuesday. He made contact with private Italian medical doctors whose advise was to dock at the first port of call. At the time, the captain was close to Algiers.

However, the captain, for unknown reasons, kept steaming ahead towards Malta.

Addressing an editorial media briefing, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat explained that a call from the captain of a Hong Kong-flagged vessel, the MV Western Copenhagen, reached the Port Authorities at 8pm on Wednesday evening requesting medical assistance.

At that moment, the vessel was at 83nm from Malta and 40nm from Sicily. It appears that Malta was one of the closest ports of call en route to Ukraine.

After further inquiries by the Maltese authorities on the condition of the patient, it transpired that the symptoms as relayed by the ship’s captain matched the case definition of Ebola.

The Maltese government shared the necessary information with other countries, who were “definitely” better equipped than Malta to handle such situations.

The MV Western Copenhagen, with a crew of 21 persons, left from Guinea en route to Ukraine. Guinea is one of the regions worst affected by the disease outbreak. Because of this, a decision was taken to refuse entry. The patient is from the Philippines.

“We emphasise that there was lack of information and we had no way of ascertaining whether the captain was understating or overstating the situation. We had no way of knowing whether it was just one person or more,” the Prime Minister said.

Muscat said the government sought the assistance of the Attorney General and experts on international law in taking its decision. Muscat insisted that the decision is both legally and morally correct.

“We are acting in conformity of all international conventions, where countries have a right to self preservation in that health systems and national security are not jeopardised.

“Morally, we know we are correct in not endangering Malta’s health system since we do not have a clear definition of what is on board.”

Muscat emphasised multiple times that the authorities did not have a clear picture of the situation: “We don’t know the magnitude of the situation and it could be a false alarm. But we will not compromise our health system.”

The Maltese government already has a plan in place in the “extremely remote possibility” that cases of Ebola hit Malta.

Muscat confirmed that the US government has been in contact with a number of governments, including Malta, requesting different forms of assistance the countries could provide – for example, by providing disinfectants.

The World Health Organisation and the European Union are also mapping the way forward with the general understanding that the situation should be tackled at the countries of origin and not by closing frontiers.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the Ebola outbreak that gripped West Africa.

The outbreak, affecting Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, is unprecedented in scope – with more than 4,000 cases having been reported across the region and over 2,200 deaths. It has also dealt a major blow to the already fragile health care systems in West Africa.

A UN platform will be set up to help coordinate international response and begin the process to stop the spread of the disease.

Present for the media briefing were deputy prime minister Louis Grech, parliamentary secretary for health Chris Fearne, justice minister Owen Bonnici, Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi, Transport Malta CEO James Piscopo, the PM’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and principal permanent secretary Mario Cutajar.

Leader of the Opposition Simon Busuttil was personally informed of the situation by the Prime Minister.

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