THE BLOG

Is Ebola Coming to the UK?

21/08/2014 10:28 BST | Updated 21/10/2014 10:59 BST

The Ebola outbreak is dominating the news. Turn on your TV, the radio, open a newspaper, chat to your colleague while the kettle boils - everyone is talking about it.

An outbreak like this is a tragic event, and naturally the stories and images we see and hear in the media are bound to heighten our concerns about what it means for us. I've spoken to a lot of people recently who are worried about it spreading to our UK shores.

Concerns are understandable - there isn't a cure or a licensed vaccine available, and we know that Ebola is often a fatal illness. So far in this outbreak, there have been over 2000 cases and over 1000 people have died. But in terms of our risk here in the UK, I hope what I'm about to tell you will help allay your fears.

Ebola is a virus. It lives inside fruit bats (and some other animals). And the problem happens when fruit bats and humans come into contact. This is what's happened in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other parts of West Africa.

Ebola takes between two and 21 days to incubate. Symptoms usually appear around eight to nine days in. Commonly, the first signs are a high fever, sore throat, headache and tiredness. Then you get severe diarrhoea, vomiting and sometimes, bleeding blisters.

It sounds scary, it is scary, but let's change the perspective here for a moment and look at it in context. Every year across the world, thousands and thousands of people will die from seasonal influenza. There's no question that those who have died from Ebola or lost loved ones because of it is extremely tragic. But from a number's perspective; the threat of Ebola is small.

One of the most important things to remember about Ebola is that this virus doesn't spread through coughing and sneezing, so it's not like the flu. Because the flu virus is so well known throughout the world, it's common to think that when you hear of an infectious outbreak, it's likely to follow the same pattern. But Ebola doesn't behave this way.

It spreads through bodily secretions, mainly blood, diarrhoea and vomit. It's also present in sweat and saliva, but in much smaller concentrations. So small that you can't get Ebola from someone sneezing or coughing on or near you. It has to be direct contact with those secretions.

Direct contact is most likely to happen in situations between relatives or healthcare workers - and we've seen this being the case in this latest outbreak.

Currently, there's no treatment. Scientists experimented with a vaccine in the early 2000s which unfortunately didn't work, and they're about to start experimentation again. New vaccines and medicines are somewhere on the horizon but not ready to use yet. Stories circulating in the media about treatments like salt water are unfounded, and fuelling unrealistic expectations resulting in panic when they fail. What we can do is treat the symptoms, such as dehydration. And it's down to this that people can and do recover.

But how do you stop transmission? Basic, good infection control is the key. Hospitals across the globe, be it London, Jeddah, the US or Australia, have really effective infection control mechanisms in place. This means that the virus would be well managed and contained.

If someone came into a hospital with symptoms that looked like Ebola, they would be kept apart from other people and very closely monitored. The people who they had close contact with would also be identified. The medical team would have all the necessary kit and equipment to protect themselves and others so that the virus doesn't spread. Protective clothing, thorough cleaning and effective waste disposal all help to reduce the risk.

In this situation - when all these measures are in place - the chances of Ebola spreading are very, very small.

If you've been concerned about travelling, WHO have released some advice. In short, your risk of infection during or after travelling is low. It's even low if anyone who has symptoms boards a flight. The best thing you can do is to be informed about how the disease manifests and spreads, and be aware of the areas that it's currently active in.

As infections like Ebola erupt across the world, they are scary and devastating for those they affect. No doubt the penchant for Hollywood blockbusters that depict the world after the spread of a lethal virus compound those fears. But infections like this can be contained, as long as the right controls are in place. And in the UK, we're lucky that we don't need to worry about this particular virus at the moment.