The Ebola crisis has been a slow burn until recently. The epidemic has been slowly and surely spreading, crossing borders and entering new continents, and it’s only recently that the world’s governments have started sitting up and taking notice, treating the epidemic very seriously indeed.
About Ebola, airport screening and safety precautions
What’s the latest news about Ebola precautions at British airports? We thought it’s be useful to give you the facts about the disease itself and how the UK government is dealing with it, so you know exactly where you stand and can make informed travel decisions.
Ebola news: First, where to go and where not to go?
It’s obvious that visiting the African nations worst affected by the virus comes with considerable risk. The Ebola Virus Wikipedia page is full of up-to-date information. The situation is still pretty fluid, which doesn’t help with decision making. Wikipedia currently says this:
“An epidemic of Ebola virus disease is ongoing in parts of West Africa. It began in Guinea in December 2013 then spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. A few much smaller subsidiary outbreaks have occurred elsewhere, with outbreaks in Nigeria and Senegal that appear to have been successfully contained, and secondary infections of medical workers with very low case numbers in the United States and Spain, neither of which is yet showing any signs of spreading in the general population.
As of October 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local governments reported a total of 8,400 suspected cases and 4,033 deaths (4,633 cases and 2,423 deaths having been laboratory confirmed), though the WHO believes that this substantially understates the magnitude of the outbreak with possibly 2.5 times as many cases as have been reported. On 14 October, during a news conference in Geneva, the assistant director-general of the WHO stated that there could be as many as 10,000 new Ebola cases per week by December 2014.”
How does Ebola spread?
There’s been a lot of scaremongering. In fact human-to-human transmission can only happen via direct contact with blood or bodily fluids from an infected person or, considerably less likely, by contact with objects someone actively ill has contaminated. No airborne transmission risk has been documented. Dead bodies are still infectious, and you can catch the virus through unprotected sex.
Difficulties containing the Ebola outbreak
Apparently the man who first discovered the Ebola virus, Doctor Peter Piot, believes this latest outbreak isn’t following the virus’s usual linear spread pattern, with it “hopping” all over West Africa. Because past outbreaks have been in remote areas, they were less of a threat. This time it has spread to busy urban areas, making transmission harder to track and stop as well as increasing the number of people likely to come into contact with victims.
British airports’ response to the Ebola crisis
The Department of Health says around 85% of UK arrivals from affected countries will arrive here via Heathrow airport. In September 2014 around 1,000 people arrived in the UK from Ebola-affected West Africa.
Five hours ago at the time of writing this post, the BBC News website announced that Heathrow airport would start screening passengers who are flying both to and from “countries at risk”. The decision follows the Health Secretary’s expectation that a “handful” of cases are likely to reach Britain before Christmas 2014.
Screening is set to begin at Heathrow airport Terminal 1, then it’ll be extended to the remaining Heathrow terminals as well as Gatwick airport and the Eurostar service, apparently by the end of this week (17th October).
What about screening before people reach Britain?
The majority of people flying from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are already screened once at the other end, before being let on the aircraft. The new UK procedures will involve at-risk people being identified by British Border Force officers when they arrive here, then screened by experts from Public Health England.
What does Ebola screening involve?
Ebola screening involves taking people’s temperatures, asking them to fill in a questionnaire and noting their contact details. If anyone is suspected of having the disease, they’ll be taken straight to hospital. If a person has been in contact with an Ebola victim but don’t have any symptoms, Public Health England will contact them every day to check their status and they’ll also be given advice about what to do if they fall ill, who to contact and where to go.
The questions people will be asked to answer include:
- Where did you start this journey?
- Have you been near anyone with confirmed Ebola virus disease?
- Have you cared for or anyone with a severe illness, or who has died of an unknown cause?
- Did you visit any traditional healers while in the affected country?
- Have you been vomiting or do you feel generally unwell?
- Have you had any contact with dead bodies or been to any funerals?
Does Ebola screening in airports work?
While fever is one of the main symptoms of Ebola, it’s also a symptom of countless other, relatively harmless infections. Screening for fever, one of the symptoms of Ebola, is of limited use but despite criticism from medical and other experts, the government believes it’s better than doing nothing.
There’s more. Because there aren’t any direct flights into Britain from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea, people will arrive in the UK via connecting flights. They could turn up at UK airports where there’s no screening, which leaves a gap in the already-limited protection that screening provides. On the bright side, “highly visible” information will be provided at every British entry point.
Will you face delays at airports because of Ebola screening? It’s doubtful, but it’s wise to keep an eye on the latest developments in case things get worse and you need to factor in Ebola-related delays to your travel plans.
What are the symptoms of Ebola?
The chances of developing Ebola in the UK remain low. But it helps to know the symptoms, which include a fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding. Sadly, they can all come about through a disease as simple as a tummy bug. This is the official advice:
- If you have these symptoms and you’ve been in contact with an infected person, it’s vital to ring 111 before going to your GP or turning up at A&E
- If you have the symptoms but you haven’t, as far as you know, been in contact with an Ebola sufferer, the official advice is to call 111 or see your GP. If you’re very ill, go to A&E
How to stay safe from Ebola in the UK
First, it’s important to remember that the risk in Britain is currently very, very low.
Second, bear in mind that in every case outside Africa apart from two, in Dallas and Madrid, were infected in Africa
Those at the highest risk of infection are a patient’s relatives and healthcare workers. But anyone who comes into close contact with an infected person is at risk.
Once someone recovers, they aren’t infectious any more. Having said that, the WHO says Ebola can be found in semen for seven weeks and other research says it’s more like three months – so if there’s any doubt in your mind, condoms are essential.
Ebola myths to ignore
Sadly there have been all sorts of silly scare stories and crazy myths, whether it’s the protective powers of raw onions – complete rubbish – or the wholly inaccurate claims about the healing properties of condensed milk. They’re very unhelpful, but thankfully the BBC Health website has created a myth busting article to redress the balance. Here it is: BBC Health on Ebola myths.
What happens next?
It depends how the epidemic progresses. Britain may end up closing its borders altogether to people travelling from affected countries or continents, and might even end up preventing UK citizens from travelling to affected nations. The disease’s progression is uncertain, and we won’t know ’til the situation becomes clearer.