Published: 14 October 2014

Surrey virology expert answers key questions on Ebola

With London’s Heathrow airport beginning to screen passengers for signs of Ebola, Surrey academic Dr Nicolas Locker debunks some common misconceptions about this deadly infectious disease.

While Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, Surrey Honorary Graduate Dame Sally Davies, says the risk to the UK is low, plans are underway to protect the country from the Ebola virus, a disease responsible for haemorrhagic (bloody) fever that causes serious and often fatal illness. So far, the virus has claimed more than 4,000 lives.

“The UK is prepared in the unlikely event of an outbreak,” said Dr Locker. “But in the time it takes to develop a successful vaccine, it is essential to assist West African countries in their effort to contain the virus.”

Dr Locker, Lecturer in Virology, has appeared on Sky News, BBC Surrey and 96.4 The Eagle discussing the outbreak. Read his Q&As about the disease below.

How does Ebola spread?

Ebola is not an airborne virus. Human-to-human transmission occurs when there’s contact between broken skin or mucous membranes (the lining of the nose, mouth and similar areas) and infected blood or bodily fluids. Patients are not infectious until they display symptoms, and good hygiene, including handwashing, can help protect against infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America recommend using of soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs.

The incubation period (until symptoms arise) can last up to 21 days. Early manifestations are high fever and headache which then progresses to abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhoea before internal and external bleeding.

Will airport screening work?

As Ebola symptoms are common with several others diseases, such as Malaria, screening may not highlight specific Ebola cases. In addition, the incubation period can last up to 21 days, so patients may not display any signs of infection at the time of screening.

Cancelling flights or closing borders with infected countries may send the wrong message to the local population, triggering mass movement to nearby countries and potentially spreading the infection and making the patient history complicated to trace. This in turn could make the management of the current outbreak more difficult.

What’s the best way to stop the disease?

Since its identification in 1976, the 12 known outbreaks of Ebola virus have been contained using isolation measures, namely putting infected patients in quarantine and also isolating those who may have been in contact with the patient and at risk of contact with blood and bodily fluids, during the incubation period.

The UK contributes to the worldwide effort to combat the Ebola outbreak, through healthcare workers, military forces and volunteers. The high risk nature of this work makes it possible that a UK citizen could be infected with Ebola while trying to manage the outbreak in Africa. In the event of a patient being diagnosed in the UK, four NHS hospitals with high level isolation units are on stand-by, and Public Health England and NHS staff are trained to deal efficiently with potential cases. Safe burial of the dead and isolation of the sick, together with maintaining good hygiene and a clean environment, should prevent widespread Ebola outbreak in the UK.

When will an Ebola vaccine be ready?

There is no vaccine or specific antiviral drugs that can be used against Ebola. Current treatments are aimed at managing the main symptoms and preventing fatal secondary bacterial infections.

Two vaccines have shown to offer protection against the infection in non-human primate models, and clinical trials are being implemented to test the efficacy of these vaccines in humans. The World Health Organization has agreed to facilitate the procedures for human trials, which will speed up the development process. However, due to technical restraints, trials are only likely to give first conclusive results in April 2015 - capital investment will then be required to mass-produce the potential vaccine.

Learn more about our Infectious Diseases Research Group and programmes in the field of Biosciences and Medicine.

Share what you've read?