Friday, 1 August 2014


An asylum seeker was suspected of having the deadly Ebola virus after developing symptoms within days of arriving in Britain from Liberia, it has emerged.

The man, who was awaiting processing at an immigration centre run by security company G4S in Gatwick, was feared to be carrying the disease, which has killed more than 700 people in West Africa.

Immigration staff isolated the man and tested him for Ebola earlier this week, but he did not have the infection.

However the incident shows how easy it would be for the deadly disease to enter Britain through illegal channels.

Border staff at UK airports also claim they have not been trained to deal with suspected cases coming into the country.

Major British hubs like Heathrow have failed to tighten procedures even through airports in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa have introduced beefed up screening.

Keith Vaz MP, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, has written to Theresa May, the home secretary, demanding to know which entry point in the UK is most at risk and how border staff are being protected against infection.

“I am concerned that officers enforcing our borders suggest they may not be fully prepared to protect the public from the spread of this deadly virus.

“Prevention is not just better than cure, in this case it is essential. I have written to the Home Secretary to ensure that we are doing all we can to protect the UK on the frontline.”

Immigration Service Union general secretary Lucy Moreton said customs, border and immigration staff were worried about being infected and had not been given proper advice about how to deal with people suspected of being sick.

Mrs Moreton said: "They serve on the front line; they are the first point of contact usually for people coming off an aircraft and the concern is what do they do if they're confronted with someone that doesn't appear well who appears at the border.

"There is no health facility at the border, there is no containment facility and until extremely recently there has been no guidance issued to staff at all as to what they should do."

Ms Moreton said members had been contacting the union for guidance on what to do and how to protect themselves, but that it had no answers for them.

A spokesman for G4S said they were monitoring new entrants who had been in the country less than 21 days, the maximum incubation time for the disease.

Professor John Ashton, President of the Faculty of Public Health, said the disease was likely to spread further.

“Epidemic diseases do not respect country boundaries, which is why we need collective action to tackle the causes of outbreaks to prevent further tragedies,” he said.

Latest figures from the World Health Organisation show that the outbreak of the deadly virus in western Africa has infected more than 1,300 people and killed at least 729. Ebola has no vaccine and there is no cure.

The outbreak has centred on Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. There has also been particular concern after densely populated Nigeria reported what is thought to be its first death from the disease on Friday.

The scientist who helped to discover the Ebola virus has said there was a ‘good probability’ that someone with the disease would enter Europe and warned that health workers were particularly at risk.

However Professor Peter Piot, who was part of the team that discovered the virus in 1976, said that the likelihood the epidemic could spread in the UK was "very, very, very low".

Prof Piot, who is now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said even if someone came to the UK during the incubation period, infection control measures in Britain would prevent the spread of the virus.

He said: "In Europe, the way I see it is that there is a good probability that someone will enter a country while incubating - when you have Ebola, frankly you can't travel you are so sick - it's the incubation time when people can enter the country.

"Here, because of our infection control and standards in hospitals, I think that the likelihood that would give rise to an epidemic is very, very, very low."

He said that he wouldn't mind sitting next to an infected person on a plane or train, adding: "By that I mean someone who is already infected but is not yet ill. Even in the early days when they have fever, that's also not risky for others.

"It's when they start bleeding, have diarrhoea and are vomiting, that's risky, but someone with full-blown Ebola infection can't travel. Even then you still need close contact. It's not like tuberculosis or Sars or the flu - that you can catch on a bus, but not Ebola.

"When someone is extremely ill - that is when they are very infectious, but at that stage patients can hardly move - they are not mobile.

"This is not a very contagious infection, you need close contact with someone who is really ill or who died from it.

"For border agents there is no problem that I can see.

"I think the key risk is for health workers. When someone comes (to hospital) with fever and some other symptoms health workers just have to ask where the person has been in the past month. If the answer is Sierra Leone then the red light should be flashing.”

Public Health England said border officers have been given guidance on how to identify and deal with suspected Ebola cases safely.

Yesterday, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond sought to reassure the public over fears that the disease could come to Britain, saying it was "most unlikely" it could spread within the UK.

He did, however, describe the outbreak as a "very serious threat", and health experts have met to discuss the possibility of people contracting the virus in West Africa and falling sick here.

The Government's emergencies committee Cobra met to discuss the situation yesterday, after which Mr Hammond said the "logical" approach was to tackle the disease at source in West Africa.

He said that the "frankly different" standards of infection control in the UK meant it was unlikely it could spread here, and that the disease appeared to be contained within the worst outbreak areas.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also said that Britain had expertise in the NHS and extensive experience dealing with dangerous diseases through the work of organisations such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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