Ebola in Britain: The first case diagnosed here will cause alarm - but we should keep our exposure in perspective


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The Independent Online

Days after the Queen praised the bravery and dedication of medical staff volunteering to work with Ebola patients in West Africa comes the grim confirmation of the risks they are taking.

Pauline Cafferkey, the Scottish health worker who is being treated for Ebola at the Royal Free Hospital in London, told the BBC before she left that she knew the dangers she was about to encounter, but was prepared for them. There is no reason to doubt that, or the quality of training she underwent; but coming into direct contact with a number of Ebola patients is inherently hazardous, and there is only so much that can be done to minimise the risks.

That said, the authorities are right to reassure the public and fellow passengers on her flights from Africa that the risk of contracting Ebola from being on the same aircraft as Ms Cafferkey at the stage of the disease she was then at is minimal. They are right, too, following the precautionary principle, to contact those fellow passengers and crew members to make sure all is well.

It bears repeating that Ebola has little chance of spreading far in a Western country with modern healthcare. Well-publicised cases have been detected in the US and Spain and those have not led to an epidemic, or anything like it.

It may be that there are shortcomings in the screening procedures at Heathrow for returning health workers, and there is no harm in reviewing and tightening these up. Even so, some cases are bound to get through; which does not mean they will spread uncontrollably.

Although unlikely, it would be unfortunate were many doctors and nurses to be deterred from taking their vocation to the countries worst hit by Ebola as a result of this first UK case of the disease. These dedicated medical professionals, all volunteers, are putting their lives at risk to help others. It is a humbling thing to witness. Their expertise and hard work are desperately needed in nations such as Sierra Leone, as the government there tries to understand what is causing the outbreak, to limit its spread and to educate its public.

Like any war, this war against disease has its foot soldiers – including those medical volunteers from Britain – its command-and-control centres, street-by-street searches, curfews, roadblocks and its sources of intelligence. We now know, for example, that the current outbreak may well have originated from a two-year-old boy in a village in Guinea catching the disease after playing with bats in a hollowed-out tree.

There is evidently much to learn about Ebola. Combating it requires funds, too – such as the £230m the Department for International Development is spending on direct, bilateral support, in addition to funds from other countries, the UN and the World Bank.

As we look to 2015, it seems likely the disease will still be around at the end of next year, and more lives will be lost. Liberia has announced a surge in fresh cases, and vaccines have so far not been tested widely enough for us to be confident about their efficacy. That may change soon, however. Of all the battles being fought in this war, the one to find a vaccine is the most vital. The World Health Organisation states we will have the results from two trials – one conducted by GlaxoSmithKline, the other by the Public Health Agency of Canada – in April, and mass vaccinations could follow shortly afterwards.

Even if the outbreak slows in the coming months, as it is hoped it will in Sierra Leone, an effective treatment will be vital in closing the door on Ebola. Here in Britain we have little reason to fear the disease; West African countries are not so lucky.