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Ebola is an International Emergency - COBRA Says UK Risk Still Low

08 August 2014 | Updated 01 January 1970

The UK government is closely monitoring the spread of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This is the largest outbreak of the Ebola virus in recent times but there are no reports of British citizens being infected.

On 7 August, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, chaired a further meeting of COBR to discuss Ebola and the current situation in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Ministers and officials from across Whitehall and other relevant organisations attended. Medical advice remains that the risk to the UK is very low. The UK has an established, well-tested system to deal with any known or suspected imported case of this disease.


Should I be worried about this outbreak?

This is not an issue that affects the UK directly. The UK has experienced scientists and doctors – the Royal Free Infectious Disease Unit, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - and 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.


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."


Travel advice

Travellers to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are advised to follow the health advice issued by the National Travel Health Network and Centre.


WHO: Ebola an International Emergency

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the spread of Ebola in West Africa an international health emergency. WHO officials said a coordinated international response was essential to stop and reverse the spread of the virus. The announcement came after experts convened a two-day emergency meeting in Switzerland.

So far more than 930 people have died from Ebola in West Africa this year. The United Nations health agency said the outbreak was an 'extraordinary event'. 'The possible consequences of further international spread are particularly serious in view of the virulence of the virus, the intensive community and health facility transmission patterns, and the weak health systems in the currently affected and most at-risk countries,' it said in a statement.

The WHO said there would be no general ban on international travel or trade but states should be prepared to detect, investigate and manage Ebola cases, including at airports.


Other recommendations include:

  • Good surveillance to pick up potential cases
  • Providing travellers to Ebola affected and at-risk areas with relevant information on risks, measures to minimize those risks and advice for managing a potential exposure
  • Effective measures to manage risks to healthcare workers
  • Giving people in affected countries up-to-date information on risks.

Prof David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the recommendations were 'comprehensive and evidence-based'.


Previous Reporting - Monday 4 August

Despite emergency Ebola response and testing being put into place on Friday for an athlete at the Commonwealth Games and yesterday at Gatwick for a woman who died having come from The Gambia, no Ebola has been found in the UK and the risk remains low says Public Health England (PHE).

A PHE spokesperson said: "We are monitoring the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD, Ebola) outbreak in West Africa. The risk to the UK remains very low. No cases of imported Ebola have ever been reported in the UK."

Ebola is a form of viral haemorrhagic fever with well over 1,000 cases reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, of which there have been more than 700 deaths. This is the first documented Ebola outbreak in West Africa and it is the largest ever known outbreak of this disease.


Response plans for the UK

Within the UK, PHE has informed medical practitioners about the situation in West Africa and requested they remain vigilant for unexplained illness in those who have visited the affected area, and actions to take in the event of a possible case. PHE has also provided advice for humanitarian workers planning to work in areas affected, and continues to engage with the Sierra Leone diaspora in England.

Advice has already been issued to Immigration Removal Centres on carrying out health assessments for people who may have previously been in Ebola outbreak areas within the preceding 21 days. In light of the ongoing outbreak, PHE will continue to liaise with the Border Agency and Port Health, to update guidance for staff working in airports and ports.

Cabin crew identifying a sick passenger with suspicion of infectious disease on board, as well as ground staff receiving the passenger at the destination, should follow the International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for suspected communicable diseases.

Dr Brian McCloskey, director of global health at Public Health England, said: "The risk to UK travellers and people working in these countries of contracting Ebola is very low but 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.

"People who have returned from affected areas who have a sudden onset of symptoms such as fever, headache, sore throat and general malaise within three weeks of their return should immediately seek medical assistance."

Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection at Public Health England said: "As we have seen with Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, we have robust mechanisms in place for detecting and responding to any usual infections within the UK.

"It is important to stress that no cases of imported Ebola have ever been reported in the UK, and 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."


Overseas aid

PHE is working with government, the World Health Organization and a range of partners including UNICEF, Médecins Sans Frontières, to provide support to the affected countries. By the end of August, PHE will have deployed 10 staff to the affected areas, providing virological and epidemiological support. The commitment from other groups will take the total or experts deployed up to 50.


Timeline of events:

February 2014 - Outbreak of a haemorrhagic illness in south-east Guinea

March 2014 - Outbreak of Ebola confirmed in south-east Guinea

Later that month, tests confirm Ebola has spread into Liberia

May 2014 - Sierra Leone confirms Ebola has spread to the Kailahun district, east of the country

June 2014 - MSF declares the Ebola outbreak is out of control

Article written by Brian Shillibeer | Published 08 August 2014


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