LONDON: A healthcare worker who is the first Briton confirmed to have tested positive for the Ebola virus was yesterday evacuated from Sierra Leone on a Royal Air Force (RAF) plane to be brought to the UK for treatment. He was expected to arrive early today.
The UK’s Department of Health (ministry for health) said he was “not currently seriously unwell” in a statement issued shortly after the C-17 aircraft took off from Freetown for RAF Northolt in west London.
The man was expected to be taken to the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead, north-west London, which has an isolation unit where he can be treated.
The man, who lives in Sierra Leone, had been volunteering at an Ebola clinic in the Kenema district in the east of the country.
The number of people infected with the deadly virus has been put at 2,615 by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The disease was identified in Guinea in March and spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria - 1,427 victims have died.
The decision to fly the British man home was taken on Saturday at a meeting between the medical director of the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system, the National Health Service (NHS), Sir Bruce Keogh, the health secretary (minister for health), Jeremy Hunt, and the foreign secretary (minister for foreign affairs), Philip Hammond. A medical assessment was carried out to see whether the patient was fit to fly.
Prof John Watson, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said the risk to the public remained low. “We have robust, well-developed and well-tested NHS systems for managing unusual infectious diseases when they arise, supported by a wide range of experts,” he said.
“UK hospitals have a proven record of dealing with imported infectious diseases and this patient will be isolated and will receive the best care possible.”
Dr Paul Cosford, the director for health protection at Public Health England, said protective measures will be maintained to minimise the risk of transmitting the virus. “For Ebola to be transmitted from one person to another, contact with blood or other body fluids is needed and, as such, the risk to the general population remains very low,” he said.
The RAF flight took off from Freetown-Lungi airport. “I saw the plane sitting there for more than one hour before it took off. Some doctors assisted the man on board,” an airport official said.
The isolation unit at the Royal Free hospital has specialist equipment to help contain the infection. The bed is surrounded by a specially-designed tent with a controlled ventilation system and a specific hospital entrance is used for transit.
Waste is decontaminated and there is a dedicated laboratory to carry out tests. All the air leaving the unit is cleaned to minimise the risk to anyone at the hospital, the hospital said.
Tom Dannatt, founder of the British charity Street Child which works in Sierra Leone and West Point in Liberia, said the spread of Ebola had spiralled from a health emergency into a humanitarian disaster. He said the Liberian township of West Point was “a tense, grim, impoverished slum at any time” and is now barricaded.
“They are now totally cut off from the world with uncertain access to food and water — and a terrifying disease from which they do not fully understand how to protect themselves,” he said.
Last week, Medecins sans Frontieres said the international community was paying “almost zero” interest to the growing health crisis. The first confirmed case of a British person contracting the virus comes after two US citizens were last week discharged from hospital after receiving experimental medications.
Countries in west Africa face ever growing isolation in their attempts to combat Ebola, as Ivory Coast became the latest state to close its borders with affected countries and the Philippines withdrew peacekeepers from the region.
Ivory Coast shut its border with Liberia after cases of the disease were reported on the border, and also with Guinea.