Viewpoint: Dr Kailash Chand: We should concentrate on stopping the spread of Ebola in Africa

The Ebola virus is hitting the headlines and the numbers show there were 2,799 new cases in the last 21 days, writes BMA deputy chairman Dr Kailash Chand.

Dr Chand: 'African lives are every bit as valuable as lives in America or anywhere else.' Pic: Michele Jones
Dr Chand: 'African lives are every bit as valuable as lives in America or anywhere else.' Pic: Michele Jones

Of the 8,011 people infected by virus in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, 3,857 people have died. And the situation continues to deteriorate, with widespread and persistent transmission, says the WHO.

Ebola is a virus that can be spread through blood and bodily fluids. Once the virus enters the body it can replicate very quickly, causing a range of increasingly harmful symptoms, including internal bleeding. Left untreated it can have a mortality rate as high as 90%. People can become infected with the Ebola virus if they come into contact with the blood, body secretions or organs of an infected person. The virus is not airborne, so it's not as infectious as diseases such as the flu – you'd need to get close to it to catch it. The early symptoms of Ebola, such as fever, headache and muscle pain, are similar to those of many other diseases. The US has decided to screen passengers From West Africa for Ebola at five airports since the announcement of first death of a US citizen.

I would advocate screening of passengers from the port of departure of infected countries

More than 6,000 people a week arrive in Britain on around 40 flights from Nigeria, Ghana and the Gambia which lie near the affected areas and are major transport hubs. I would advocate screening of passengers from the port of departure of infected countries. And if they have a fever, they should be pulled out of line, assessed for Ebola, and refused flight unless Ebola is ruled out.Scientists predict the virus has a 50% chance of reaching our neck of woods in next couple of weeks. In such an unlikely event, GPs will be at the forefront with huge workload implications. England’s CMO Professor Dame Sally Davies has already urged ‘every clinician in England’ to take a full travel history from all patients with a fever.

Let me make it abundantly clear, there is currently no direct threat to people in the UK from the Ebola virus. But we can’t be complacent. Public Health England (PHE) has told health professionals about the situation in West Africa and asked for vigilance about unexplained illness in people who have visited the affected area. I understand the PHE is working to develop excellent protocols that would virtually guarantee complete safety. Unfortunately, all of those valiant efforts cannot preclude human error, which remains an ever-present danger, regardless of intellect.

UK units will provide 'surge capacity' in the event of a mass outbreak 

If anyone in the UK develops the above symptoms and has potentially been in close contact with the virus, they will be admitted to hospital and will most likely be quarantined. In addition to London's Royal Free Hospital, units in Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle will provide ‘surge capacity’ in the event of a mass outbreak. UK hospitals have a proven record of dealing with imported infectious diseases. If an Ebola case is repatriated to, or detected in, the UK they would receive appropriate treatment in an isolation unit, with all appropriate protocols promptly activated.

More importantly we should be concentrating on stopping the spread of Ebola in Africa and eradicating it from the earth. Like the war on terrorism, we should fight it elsewhere to decrease the likelihood of needing to fight it here. African lives are every bit as valuable as lives in America or anywhere else, and this humanitarian crisis has enormous health implications for the whole world.

Let us not underestimate Ebola is an extremely dangerous disease with the potential to spread throughout several African countries and, subsequently, into other parts of the world, including the UK. Most crises prompt warnings which, if heeded and acted upon, can avert disaster. On the other hand, if arrogance and mistakes characterise the response, horrendous results are likely to ensue. It is high time we concentrated our efforts on halting the spread of the disease where it is concentrated and subsequently find a cure, perhaps we can avert needless panic and death throughout Africa, UK and the world.

*Dr Chand is BMA deputy chairman

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