Ebola: should we be alarmed?

Posted on 24/08/2014 by


The Department of Health confirmed yesterday that a British national residing in Sierra Leone has tested positive for Ebola virus infection. Should we be concerned?

s300_Ebola_virus_virionThe simple answer is no, there is no immediate cause for alarm – but the health authorities remain vigilant.

‘the risk of any traveller to West Africa contracting Ebola is very low without direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person.’


Professor John Watson, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said: “The overall risk to the public in the UK continues to be very low. Medical experts are currently assessing the situation in Sierra Leone to ensure that appropriate care is provided. We have robust, well-developed and well-tested NHS systems for managing unusual infectious diseases when they arise, supported by a wide range of experts.”

Ebola haemorrhagic fever is a rare but severe disease caused by the Ebola virus. Ebola is highly transmissible by direct contact with organs or bodily fluids of living or dead infected persons and animals.

An Ebola outbreak was first confirmed in Guinea back in February and quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The outbreak is the world’s deadliest to date.

Ebola kills up to 90% of those infected but patients have a better chance of survival if they receive early treatment. The latest outbreak has caused more than 700 deaths since February.

The UK government is closely monitoring the Ebola outbreak – the largest outbreak of the virus in recent times – but said in a statement:

‘This is not an issue that affects the UK directly. We have experienced scientists and doctors including at the Royal Free Infectious Disease Unit, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. We also have a lot of experience of dealing with dangerous diseases. The risk of this disease spreading fast in the UK is much lower because of that.

‘The UK government is taking precautionary measures and looking at capability but is confident that the UK has experienced people who are ready to deal with anything if it were to arrive here.’

Following a meeting of government committee COBR, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “We’ve looked at how we are co-ordinating with our French and American colleagues under the World Health Organisation, we’ve considered what additional measures the UK could take to help control the outbreak in West Africa and we’ve also looked at what measures we need to put in place on a precautionary basis in case any UK nationals in West Africa should become affected by the disease.

We do not, at the moment, think this is an issue that affects the UK directly.”

Guidance has been issued to front line Border Force staff on how to identify and safely deal with suspected cases of Ebola – it makes clear what steps need to be taken should a passenger arrive at the border unwell.

If a person is identified at the border as being a potential carrier they will be immediately referred by a Border Force officer to a specialist medical care provider and reported to public health authorities.

There was a local scare earlier this month when an athlete from Sierra Leone fell ill during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, but he tested negative for Ebola. Dr Colin Ramsay, of Health Protection Scotland, said then: “There’s been no programme of actively screening athletes simply because of the Commonwealth Games.

“The situation is that if someone presents with symptoms suggestive of the possibility of Ebola virus infection and who has come from a country affected by the current outbreak – and that’s Sierra Leone and Guinea and Liberia – they would be investigated accordingly and that would involve managing them with a set of standard precautions. People in this sort of situation would be investigated for a number of conditions, not just Ebola.”

No cases of imported Ebola have ever been reported in the UK.