9 Oct 2014

British man ‘dies from Ebola’ in Macedonia

A British man suspected of contracting Ebola has died in Macedonia as Downing Street announces “enhanced screening” at Heathrow and Gatwick airports and Eurostar train terminals.

A British man suspected of contracting the Ebola virus has died in Macedonia, a senior Macedonian government official confirmed, adding that the victim is thought to have travelled from Britain.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters a second Briton had also shown symptoms of the virus.

He said the two had been staying at a hotel in the capital Skopje and that hotel staff and the ambulance crew that took them in for treatment had been put into isolation.

The virus, has killed nearly 4,000 people in West Africa since March, in the largest outbreak on record.

Read more: The future of Africa is at stake

News of the death followed a chaotic day that saw the announcement of screening procedures at Gatwick, Heathrow and Eurostar train terminals. Despite growing calls for ministers to follow the lead of the United States, which is introducing screening at some airports, the Department of Health (DH) insisted it had no plans for screening, while Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the existing Government policy was in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) advice.

But hours later the position changed – and the programme of screening was announced. It will involve assessing passenger’s recent travel history, who they have been in contact with, and their onward travel arrangements, as well as a possible medical assessment by trained medical personnel.

Mixed messages

“If the medical advice is we need to screen – it might well be – then we will absolutely take that action,” George Osborne said earlier in the day. “We are not going to do anything that puts the British population at risk. Quite the opposite. The steps we have taken for several months now have all been designed to protect Britain from this awful disease.”

The WHO doesn’t advise entry screening, merely because the science says it doesn’t work Dr Brian McCloskey, director of global health at Public Health England

On Tuesday, Dr Brian McCloskey, director of global health at Public Health England, told Channel 4 News the government was following current medical advice: “the WHO doesn’t advise entry screening, merely because the science says it doesn’t work.”

However, concerns are rising that an Ebola outbreak could be just weeks away from the UK.

This week the virus, that has claimed more than 3,000 lives in west Africa, officially arrived in Europe. On Monday Spanish nurse Teresa Romero Ramos became the first to contract the virus outside west Africa.

Two days later American Thomas Eric Duncan died in Texas just weeks after returning from Liberia. A nurse in Australia is in hospital. And scientists have forecast a 50 per cent chance Ebola could be in Britain by October 24.

Assessing the threat

So what exactly is Britain’s position? And is the UK prepared? Public Health England (PHE) insists the chances of contracting the virus remains low and that the UK has a “robust, well-developed and well-tested NHS systems for managing unusual infectious diseases”. Four major NHS hospitals are on standby to deal with a possible outbreak, including the Royal Free Hospital in north London, which treated William Pooley, a British nurse who contracted the virus in August.

Others include Royal Liverpool University Hospital NHS foundation trust, Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals Foundation trust and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals foundation trust. The UK is prepared.

But the threat is gaining increased traction in medical circles. A document seen by Channel 4 News entitled “Viral Haemorrhagic Risk Assessment” and issued to NHS doctors earlier this year says that staff at high risk of Ebola will require “disposable gown, double gloves, eye protection and an FFP3 respirator”.

Doctors have also been asked to find out, as part of a series of questions, if patients suspected of the virus have “visited caves or mines, or had contact with primates, antelopes or bats” in an Ebola-infested area, or whether during their travels they “crushed a tick with their bare hands or had close involvement with animal slaughter”.

But doctors say we should not quite expect the doomsday scenario of a killer virus sweeping through Britain. Yorkshire GP Richard Vaughtry told Channel 4 News: “This is not an airborne virus like the flu and therefore it’s not going to fly from person-to-person in a rapid way.

“Britain is very good at dealing with this sort of outbreak. If someone genuinely believes they have it, they need to isolate themselves immediately. If they arrive at a GP and are found to be susceptible we can even isolate them inside a surgery until the relevant help is sought.”

Even if there is an outbreak, doctors say Britain has the expertise and infrastructure to deal with the threat in a more controlled and manageable way than west Africa.

Professor David Lalloo of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine told Channel 4 News: “Just by the very simple ability to recognise and detect Ebola early on, will put UK hospitals in a far easier position than west Africa which is dealing with thousands of cases and are already stretched with limited resources and physical capacity.”