Deadly foreign diseases like Ebola are a ‘potential major threat’ to Britain, the government’s chief scientist has warned, as public health officials urged doctors to watch for signs that the virus has spread to the UK. The disease, which can be fatal for up to 90 per cent of infected victims, has now killed more than 670 people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Public Health England has issued an urgent warning to doctors to watch for signs of the lethal disease after an infected man was allowed to travel through an international hub. They said the virus was ‘clearly not under control.’ In an interview with The Telegraph Sir Mark Walport, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, said that the increasingly ‘interconnected’ world was placing Britons at risk.
Ebola outbreak: Second US worker fighting for life after contracting deadly illness in Liberia
Ebola outbreak: American doctor fighting for life after contracting deadly illness in Liberia
“The UK is fortunate in its geographical position. We’re an island,” he said. “But we are living in a completely interconnected world where disruptions in countries far away will have major impacts. “The most dangerous infections of humans have always been those which have emerged from other species. They are a potential major threat to us. Emerging infectious disease is a global grand challenge. “We were lucky with SARS. But we have to do the best horizon scanning. We have to think about risk and managing risk appropriately. “The government is keeping a close eye on the Ebola outbreak and they will be prepared.” No cases of Ebola have ever been reported in the UK and the risk of travellers going to West Africa and contracting the disease is ‘very low’ said Sir Mark.
However, the death of American Patrick Sawyer in Lagos, Nigeria, has led to fears that the virus could spread beyond Africa. Mr Sawyer, 40, had travelled from his home of Minnesota to attend the funeral of his sister, who died from Ebola. But it is unclear how he was allowed to board multiple international flights after he had started presenting symptoms. Despite vomiting and suffering from diarrhoea, the Liberian Finance Ministry employee, was able to fly from Liberia, via Ghana, and Togo, before arriving in Nigeria, where he died. Experts say he could have passed on the disease to anyone sat near him or who used the same toilet on one of the planes and are now trying to trace fellow passengers.
On Tuesday Asky Airlines, who Mr Sawyer flew with, said it was temporarily halting flights to the capitals of Liberia (Monrovia)and Sierra Leone (Freetown). The World Health Organisation is considering closing the borders to infected countries. Dr Brian McCloskey, director of global health at Public Health England, said Ebola situation was being closely monitored. “It is the largest outbreak of this disease to date, and it’s clear it is not under control, ” said Dr McCloskey.
“We have alerted UK medical practitioners about the situation in West Africa and requested they remain vigilant for unexplained illness in those who have visited the affected area.” The government agency is currently reviewing its advice to decide whether to raise the risk level. The closest the disease has come to Britain was in the 1990s when a veterinarian travelled to Switzerland while infected. The disease was caught early by doctors and she was treated before she passed on the virus.
Professor David Heymann, head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House, London, said it was difficult to stop infected travellers moving around the world if they kept their symptoms hidden. “The best thing would be if people did not travel when they were sick, but the problem is people won’t say when they’re sick. “They will lie in order to travel, so it is doubtful travel recommendations would have a big impact. “The important thing is for countries to be prepared when they get patients infected with Ebola, that they are isolated, family members are told what to do and health workers take the right steps.”
Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks – in Nzara, Sudan; and in Yambuku, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name. It is introduced into the human population through close contact with the sweat, blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines. The virus then spreads in the community through human-to-human transmission. Symptoms begin with fever, muscle pain and a sore throat, then rapidly escalate to vomiting, diarrhoea and internal and external bleeding. The incubation period can be up to 21 days.