Concerns have been expressed about the possibility of the current Ebola outbreak spreading globally after an infected airline passenger introduced the deadly virus to Nigeria. All outbreaks since 1976, when Ebola was first identified, have been confined to rural and forested areas in Africa, with the previous highest death toll being 280.
The current outbreak – which was first reported in Guinea in February, going on to spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone — has already spread across four countries in West Africa, killing more than 700 people, including several health professionals, and emerging as the deadliest outbreak ever.
Thousands are believed to have been infected by the virus, which can go unnoticed for three weeks and kills up to 90% of victims.
After air traveler Patrick Sawyer unwittingly introduced Ebola to Nigeria, some health experts now fear that infected travelers who are unaware that they have the virus could spread it worldwide.
Sawyer, a civil servant, collapsed at Lagos airport in Nigeria on July 20 after flying in from Liberia, where he had attended the funeral of his sister, who had succumbed to the disease.
En route to Nigeria, Sawyer’s plane landed in Togo, prompting fears that the virus may now have reached a fifth country.
With 170million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, and Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, told the Daily Mail: “If the disease gets going in Nigeria it would be cause for concern. Nigeria has close links with the UK and many other countries.”
Nigeria, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are now screening air passengers, but doctors say this may not be effective because Ebola has an incubation period of two to 21 days and cannot be instantly diagnosed.
Symptoms include high fever, bleeding and damage to the nervous system. There is no vaccine or cure. It is spread by contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids including sweat.
The US Peace Corps is already withdrawing its volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea because of the spread of the virus, while a Public Health England spokeswoman said an alert sent to UK doctors on July 1 had advised them to be aware of the symptoms of Ebola, especially in people who had recently returned from the region.
The British Department of Health said a man had been tested for Ebola in Birmingham, but tests for the virus had proved negative. Doctors have nevertheless been told to remain vigilant for possible cases of Ebola “imported” to the UK.