Ebola outbreak: First Briton with disease arrives in UK

Doctors prepare for Ebola. Guinea, April 2014. [European Commission]

A plane carrying a British healthcare worker who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone has landed in the UK, the country’s Ministry of Defence said Sunday. He was evacuated from the west Africa country on a Royal Air Force jet.

The man, who is not “seriously unwell”, according to the Department of Health, was flown to RAF Northolt in west London and landed at 9pm. He will be transported to the UK’s only high level isolation unit at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London.

It is the first confirmed case of a Briton contracting the deadly virus during the recent outbreak. The identity of the patient – who lived in Sierra Leone – has not been disclosed. There is no cure for Ebola and outbreaks have a case fatality rate of up to 90pc.

UK health chiefs insisted that the risk to the British public from Ebola is “very low”.

The infected patient’s bed will be surrounded by a specially-designed tent with its own controlled ventilation system. Only specially-trained medical staff are allowed inside the unit.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “The patient is not currently seriously unwell and is being medically evacuated in a specially equipped C17 Royal Air Force plane to RAF Northolt in the UK.

“Upon arrival in the UK the patient will be transported to an isolation unit at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.”

Professor John Watson, deputy chief medical officer, insisted that “the overall risk to the public in the UK remains very low”. He said: “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.

“UK hospitals have a proven record of dealing with imported infectious diseases and this patient will be isolated and will receive the best care possible.”

Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection at Public Health England, said protective measures would be strictly maintained to avoid the virus being transmitted to staff transporting the patient and healthcare workers in the UK.

He added: “For Ebola to be transmitted from one person to another contact with blood or other body fluids is needed and as such, the risk to the general population remains very low.”

Dr Bob Winter, national clinical director for emergency preparedness and critical care for NHS England, said preparations have been made over the past few weeks to ensure any patient being repatriated to the UK receives the best possible care.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put the number of people infected with the deadly virus at 2,615. Some 1,427 have died since the disease was identified in Guinea in March and spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.

Rigorous quarantine measures are used to stop the spread of Ebola, as well as high standards of hygiene for anyone who might come into contact with sufferers.

Symptoms of the virus appear as a sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function and, in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.

The effects of the disease normally appear between two and 21 days after infection. It is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through person-to-person transmission.

The WHO says the disease can be passed between people by direct contact – through broken skin or mucous membranes – with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued updated travel advice earlier this week which urged people to carefully assess their need to travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

“General medical facilities throughout Sierra Leone are currently under severe strain due to the Ebola outbreak, and unable to provide the same standard of healthcare as in the UK. Dedicated healthcare facilities for Ebola are overwhelmed,” the FCO warned.

The Sierra Leone parliament has voted to pass a new law which means anyone caught hiding an Ebola patient can receive prison terms of up to two years.

Some 910 cases have been recorded in the country – and 392 deaths – but the WHO believes the magnitude of the outbreak has been underestimated because people are hiding infected friends and family in their homes.

The WHO reported that corpses are being buried in rural villages without notifying health officials and with no investigation of the cause of death. In some instances epidemiologists have travelled to villages and counted the number of fresh graves as a rough estimate of suspected cases.

The risk of the virus moving to other continents is low, disease specialists say. But tracing every person who may have had contact with an infected case is vital to getting on top of the outbreak within West Africa, and doing so often means teasing out seemingly routine information about victims’ lives.

The risk of the Ebola virus making its way out of Africa into Europe is extremely low, according to infectious disease specialists, partly due to the severity of the disease and its deadly nature.

“The most important thing is good surveillance of everyone who has been in contact or could have been exposed,” said David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology and head of global health security at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Heymann noted that the only case in which an Ebola case was known to have left Africa and made it to Europe via air travel was in 1994 when a Swiss zoologist became infected with the virus after dissecting a chimpanzee in Ivory Coast.

The woman was isolated in a Swiss hospital and discharged after two weeks without infecting anyone else.

“Outbreaks can be stopped with good infection control and with understanding by people who have been in contact with infected cases that they have to be responsible,” Heymann said.

The Ebola virus disease or Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a disease of humans and other primates caused by a virus that may be acquired upon contacts with blood or blood fluids of an infected animal (commonly monkeys or bats). Spreading through the air has not been documented in the natural environment. The disease has a high mortality rate: often between 50% and 90%.

The average time between contracting the infection and the start of symptoms is 8 to 10 days, but it can vary between 2 and 21 days. No Ebola virus-specific treatment exists.

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