A ship carrying at least one crew member suspected to have the deadly Ebola virus has been barred from entering Malta's harbours, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat revealed this afternoon.
The patient was later taken off the ship in Sicily, nearly 24 hours after the alarm was raised.
The ship had been travelling from Guinea to Ukraine when it requested assistance from the Maltese authorities last night.
The government said a crew member, a Filipino national, is suffering from symptoms related to the virus which has plagued Western Africa. There are indications of at least one other suspected case on board, but a government spokesman said the ship continued on its voyage to Ukraine after offloading its crew member in Sicily.
“Our decision is morally and legally correct,” Dr Muscat told an informal news conference at Auberge de Castille.
The case developed at 8pm when the ship captain called the Maltese port authorities for medical assistance. The Hong Kong registered merchant vessel Western Copenhagen was located 40 miles from Sicily, and 83 miles from Malta.
It was not clear at first what medical attention was needed but the Maltese authorities realised that the patient’s symptoms could relate to Ebola.
We can't say if captain is understating or overstating the issue- Prime Minister
The Armed Forces shadowed the ship for hours, which is now close to Sicilian ports.
“We are lacking information. We can't say if the captain is understating or overstating the issue,” Dr Muscat said.
The patient has been given medication, including antibiotics.
Dr Muscat explained that a decision to stop the ship from entering Maltese waters was taken following consultation with all the authorities, including the Attorney General.
International conventions state that countries are obliged to help individuals in need of assistance, but they also specify exceptions if the country’s health systems or national security could be breached.
“It could be a false alarm, but we are morally correct to take this decision because we cannot endanger our health system, especially when we don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” Dr Muscat said.
As a precaution, the hospital had already upgraded its high-security isolation room to cater for any potential Ebola cases.
The virus spreads by contact with infected blood and bodily fluids.
Hospitals and clinics in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hit hardest by the outbreak, are overwhelmed by what the World Health Organisation is calling the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.
The virus has killed at least 2,400 people, and thousands more are infected. Cases have also been reported in Nigeria and Senegal.
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