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Ebola 'unlikely to reach Europe'

A scientist who helped to discover the deadly Ebola virus has said the current outbreak is extremely unlikely to spread to Europe.

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".

While concerns have been raised that border staff do not feel adequately prepared to deal with the possibility of people with Ebola coming to the UK, Prof Piot said he would happily sit next to an infected person on a plane or train.

He said border staff should not be concerned because those with full-blown Ebola would not be well enough to travel.

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, and then that will require referral to a specialised unit, and the hospitals here are prepared for that."

Prof Piot said he did not think there was a risk of the epidemic spreading to Europe, but he added that in Africa the outbreak could reach other countries such as the Ivory Coast.

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.

However, Prof Piot said that he was optimistic that the western African countries affected were now demonstrating strong leadership in tackling the problem.

He said that the largest ever outbreak of the disease could partly be attributed to recent history in the affected countries.

Prof Piot added: "Finally the president of Liberia and the president of Sierra Leone have declared Ebola a national emergency.

"Why do we have this continuing outbreak? It is not so much to do with the virus itself but the beliefs about causation of disease and the fact that these countries have come out of two decades of brutal civil war which means there is no trust in authorities or health services."

Earlier the general secretary of the Immigration Service Union, Lucy Moreton, said the union's members were were not confident over what to do if they suspected someone of being sick coming into the UK.

But the Government has said that 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.

Public Health England has warned health officials to be on the lookout for any unexplained illness in people returning from the affected countries.

The director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and presidents of west African nations affected by the outbreak will meet tomorrow in Guinea to launch a new joint 100 million dollar response plan to try to bring it under control.

Director-general Dr Margaret Chan said: "The scale of the Ebola outbreak, and the persistent threat it poses, requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level, and this will require increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination. The countries have identified what they need, and WHO is reaching out to the international community to drive the response plan forward."

The Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak Response Plan in West Africa identifies the need for several hundred more personnel to be deployed in affected countries to supplement overstretched treatment facilities.

Hundreds of international aid workers, as well as 120-plus WHO staff, are already supporting national and regional response efforts - but more are urgently required.

A WHO spokesman said: "Of greatest need are clinical doctors and nurses, epidemiologists, social mobilisation experts, logisticians and data managers. The plan also outlines the need to increase preparedness systems in neighbouring nations and strengthen global capacities."

WHO and affected and neighbouring countries will renew efforts to mobilise communities and strengthen communication so people know how to avoid infection and what to do if they fear they may have come into contact with the virus.


From Belfast Telegraph