Urgent warnings have been issued to border officials and British doctors to be aware of the signs of the Ebola virus which may be arriving in Britain.
The warning comes after an infected male was permitted to fly from disease-affected Liberia to Lagos in Nigeria.
Public Health England (PHE) experts are meeting with representatives from the UK Border Agency and airports to ensure they know of the signs to look for and how to act if the worst was to happen.
The disease can be fatal in about 90% of cases and causes external and internal bleeding. There is no cure for the disease which has killed more than 670 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
There are questions surrounding how Patrick Sawyer, whose sister has died from Ebola and who had the symptoms of the disease, was allowed to board several international flights. He was suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting when he left Liberia; he stopped over in Ghana, changed flights in Togo and eventually passed away in Nigeria. Experts say he may have passed the disease to other others who sat close to him or who used the same toilet on one of his flights.
The director of global health at PHE, Dr Brian McCloskey, said his team have been in talks with David Cameron regarding the Ebola virus status. He describes it as the most ‘acute health emergency’ Britain is currently facing. He said they work with everyone concerned when this type of event starts to escalate, to ensure that everyone is aware of what is required.
Dr McCloskey said that the international airport staff in the UK have also been briefed on their reaction if they suspect a passenger may be carrying Ebola.
Over the last few weeks PHE has used its national medical alert system to ask all doctors in the UK to remain vigilant for any unexplained illness in individuals who have recently visited the affected areas.
The head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House, London and the chairman of Public Health England, Professor David Heymann, said it was critical that a victim of Ebola was allowed to fly out of an affected area.
He said that there has been a lack of international co-operation as to the action needed to stop the disease from spreading, and greater collaboration is required. He said however that it is not always possible to stop the spread of infections with border controls as a person may not yet be indicating symptoms or may travel, but keep their symptoms hidden, as has occurred with doctors in the past.
Professor Heymann worked as an epidemics expert in Africa during the first Ebola outbreaks during the 1970s and 19802 and said this would not be the first time the virus has reached a major European aviation centre.
He said the UK was well-prepared to deal with new infectious diseases.
Professor Heymann said that those concerned should be alert to emerging infections. He said the EU and the UK are vigilant at all times and carry out many exercises which will alert them to the emergence of Ebola. He said that the UK was prepared for this.
Dr McCloskey said that due to the virus not being airborne or respiratory, it cannot be transferred within the confines of a plane in the same way as pandemic flu.
In cases such as that of Mr Sawyer, it would have been necessary for someone to get his saliva or vomit on a cut, sore or in their eyes, or they would have had to come into contact with his bodily fluids after using the same toilet, for the disease to be transferred.
However, he added that people should be aware of the ‘worst case scenario’ where several people are allowed to land in Britain after having contracted the virus. In this case it would still be unlikely that the UK would suffer an outbreak on the same scale as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, due to contact tracing and established containment systems which are in place. These systems will isolate anyone who may be at risk of passing on the disease.
Dr McCloskey said that this is the largest Ebola outbreak that has ever been seen and it is clearly not under control.
Common symptoms of Ebola include:
• Lack of appetite
• Stomach pain
• Joint and muscle pain
Image Credit: Sebástian Freire