Spreading: The latest outbreak of ebiola has scientists worried
A fast-spreading virus that liquifies internal organs and kills six in 10 victims.
Ebola is the stuff of nightmares – and horror movies.
British acadmics have even talked about it being responsible for the Black Death plague epidemics of the Middle Ages which killed millions across Europe and Asia.
Now doctors across the UK have been sent letters warning them to to look out for Ebola Hemmorrhagic Fever, one of the most deadly and infectious diseases in the world.
It has killed hundreds in the world’s worst outbreak. Experts now fear it could spread beyond the borders of West Africa. More than 1,200 people have caught the virus and over 670 in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have died as a result.
On Friday a man died after flying 1,000 miles from Liberia to Nigeria, heightening concerns international air travel could speed up its spread. And experts admit the virus could find its way to Britain.
Cambridge University’s Dr Peter Walsh, a lecturer in archaeology and anthropology and Ebola expert, says: “It’s possible someone infected will fly to Heathrow having infected other people sitting next to them or by using the toilet.
Deadly: How the virus takes hold
“This strain of Ebola is probably the second most deadly virus in the world after canine rabies. If you get canine rabies, you’re going to die, but we also have vaccines for that.
“This is worse than anthrax, but there are vaccines and treatments for anthrax, too.”
There is currently no cure or vaccine for Ebola. Even the front-line doctors have started falling victim to the disease they are trying to treat.
Last week a Liberian medic, Dr Samuel Brisbane, died after contracting the disease and Kent Brantly, a US doctor from a medical charity working in the region, has fallen ill with the disease.
The infection, spread via bodily fluids, begins with symptoms including a fever and sore throat then develops to vomiting, diarrhoea and profuse internal and external bleeding.
Victims may die of multi-organ failure within days of first contact with the bug. Some strains can kill up to 90% of sufferers.
But Dr Walsh says any cases that reached Britain would be far more manageable.
He says: “Ebola is pretty containable with modern methods in modern countries. You won’t see a major outbreak in the UK.”
But, as a precaution, British doctors have been sent letters from the Government’s Public Health England telling them to watch for anyone with strange illnesses who have travelled in West Africa.
Infected: The location of Ebola cases
The body deals with potential outbreaks and Dr Brian McCloskey, its director of global health, said: “There is the recognition this is a problem that is not under control… At the moment its preparatory thinking rather than alarm.”
PHE also has a phone line telling doctors what tests to do on patients who may have symptoms.
The disease was first documented in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, and was named after the river that runs through the country.
It is known to be carried by bats but usually only affects people, and primates such as monkeys, living near the creatures on the edge of the tropical rainforests.
Although conspiracy theorists will tell you that Ebola – along with Aids – was man-made, developed in a lab as a weapon by the CIA and tested in Africa, where it escaped into the wild.
However ludicrous this sounds, Dr Walsh believes the virus does have huge potential as a weapon.
He says: “The bio-terror people are worried about somebody weaponising Ebola and being able to deliver it in an aerosol form.
“In that case it could be seriously nasty, because it would be just as deadly – but this way they’d have a means to really spread it.”
Little bug: A magnified image of the Ebola virus
The first report of the current Ebola outbreak was in south-east Guinea in February, and infections levels steadily grew.
These are the first cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.Health experts from the World Health Organissation are trying to educate Africans on the dangers of burial rites, such as touching and washing dead bodies, which may increase the spread of the disease.
Efforts to contain Ebola have also been hampered in areas of Sierra Leone where a distrust of Western medicine and belief in faith healers have seen locals ignore attempts at isolating infected patients.
Dr Walsh believes medics should start using vaccines for Ebola even though they are in the early stages of development.
He says: “They haven’t been licensed for human use but they work very well on lab monkeys.
“If we have the technology to save these people why aren’t we doing it? The answer is that it’s Africa.”