VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta stopped a cargo vessel that was traveling from Guinea to Ukraine from entering its harbor for a medical emergency on Wednesday night on fears the sick person on board could be infected with Ebola, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.
Muscat told reporters on Thursday that the vessel, the Hong Kong-registered Western Copenhagen, requested medical assistance but was refused entry after Maltese authorities realized the patient's symptoms were similar to the symptoms of Ebola.
The ship, with 21 persons on board, was now cruising close to Sicily and believed to be heading to Italy, he said. The armed forces were monitoring its whereabouts, he said.
"Our decision is morally and legally correct,” Muscat said.
He added it was not clear if the patient, a Filipino national, was infected with the virus or whether anyone else on the ship was affected. At least 2,630 people have died in the worst recorded outbreak of the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, the vast majority of them in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Symptoms of Ebola can include diarrhea and vomiting, but those are also present in other diseases such as malaria and cholera, which is why the virus can only be confirmed with a specific test.
"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,” Muscat said.
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.
Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall