Health chief remains cautious as 11 plague suspects get all-clear: Ambulance and mobile medical unit stationed at Heathrow

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The Independent Online
ELEVEN out of 15 people suspected of being infected by the plague from India have been cleared, and the four others are unlikely to be carriers, the Department of Health said yesterday.

However, Dr Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer, continued to show caution - in contrast to some officials in India who say the epidemic may have peaked - by stressing that a consultant in communicable disease control was in place in every district health authority in England, and that person would ensure that beds and facilities were available.

However, he told BBC 1's Breakfast With Frost programme that it was 'very unlikely' the four uncleared cases in Britain had the plague. 'This whole process is geared up to ensuring that if there is somebody who has come into this country with the plague, they are identified quickly and treated very rapidly,' he said.

Meanwhile, urgent action was being taken to prevent any repetition of the blunder which left a suspected plague victim waiting five hours for an ambulance at Heathrow last Saturday.

The London Ambulance Service yesterday began stationing a special vehicle equipped to deal with highly infectious patients at terminal three, where Air India flights arrive, while a mobile medical unit was also brought in.

The new measures - which followed a political row, with MPs condemning the lack of facilities - paid off when another passenger with plague-like symptoms flew in on an aircraft from India, and was driven straight to Northwick Park Hospital in north-west London without having to enter the main airport buildings. Both this passenger and the man at the centre of Saturday's row were found not to be plague- infected.

Meanwhile, the plague continued its relentless sweep across India yesterday, with the number of suspected cases nearly doubling in 24 hours to 4,058 cases. The epidemic has now spread to 12 Indian states.

Despite this, health authorities in Delhi claim that the epidemic may have peaked. Officials insist that panic among Indians - confusing a common influenza with plague symptoms - may explain the huge jump in suspected victims. Officials point out that the plague killed only one person yesterday, in the western city of Surat, bringing the official total to around 55 deaths.

A health ministry official, M S Dayal, said: 'The situation is fully under control.' This has become an often-repeated mantra, which is sounding increasingly hollow as deadly, airborne pneumonic plague and bubonic plague, transmitted by rats' fleas, continue advancing across the country. The latest states where plague is suspected are Kashmir in the north, Tripura in the far east, and Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, all in the south.

The scourge may also have leapt India's frontiers. Despite a ban on flights from plague-affected Indian cities, Pakistan and Bangladesh yesterday reported cases of suspected plague.

Several Gulf states are beginning to evacuate their citizens from Bombay, even though this sea port has not yet had any reported plague deaths. Qatar led the way yesterday, flying out 120 citizens in a chartered Airbus. Bahrain is expected to pull out its nationals today and other Gulf states are expected to follow the same precautions.

Meanwhile, some medical experts voiced scepticism over Bombay's claim that it has had no plague fatalities and only 23 confirmed cases. It is known that when pneumonic plague was first detected in Surat, tens of thousands fled to Bombay. Many of the Surat refugees vanished into Bombay's sprawling slums where disease can spread swiftly. Speculation has risen that officials may be hiding the true number of plague victims to prevent hysteria sweeping this metropolis of more than 10 million people.