Why Glasgow Ebola case is very unlikely to spread

Glasgow’s Gartnavel Hospital has past experience with Ebola-like diseases. Dave Campbell, CC BY-SA

It has been confirmed that a healthcare worker who has returned from Sierra Leone has contracted the Ebola virus and is being treated in a Glasgow hospital. The female patient tested positive for the virus shortly after returning to Glasgow Airport via Casablanca and London Heathrow. The patient is currently in an isolation unit in the city’s Gartnavel hospital, but will shortly be transferred to a high-containment infectious disease facility in London for treatment.

The diagnosis represents the first case of Ebola to be identified in Scotland and the second case overall in the UK. Both cases in Britain have been health workers who have returned from working in Ebola-affected regions of west Africa and contracted the virus prior to returning to the UK. The first case was volunteer nurse William Pooley, who was discharged from hospital in September after making a full recovery and subsequently returned to west Africa.

Risk of transmission

As has been stated repeatedly by now, Ebola has a low risk of transmission, even to other passengers on the aircraft upon which the Glasgow healthcare worker was travelling. The virus is only passed from person to person by direct contact with infected body fluids, and is not known to be transmissible through the air. This makes it substantially less infectious than other viral infections such as influenza, which is airborne.

Glasgow and indeed Scotland as a whole has excellent infectious disease surveillance and containment facilities. This means the affected patient can be isolated, and will allow for appropriate transport and subsequent treatment in dedicated facilities in London.

It is also reassuring to note that Gartnavel hospital has the experience of dealing with a relevant case in the recent past. In 2012 a patient was admitted suffering from Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever, a viral infection that, like Ebola, can cause uncontrolled bleeding and has a significant mortality rate.

As Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said shortly after the story broke, the risks of infection are “extremely low given the early stage of diagnosis. The patient was displaying no symptoms of the kind that would lead to onwards transmission that would put other people at risk”.

The first Scottish Ebola case will no doubt be at the forefront of the minds of the nation’s people over the coming days as we watch closely to see if it is only a single person affected. Scottish healthcare workers will undoubtedly be using increased vigilance to ensure that any further cases are identified and treated as quickly as possible. With over 7,500 deaths and 19,000 cases of Ebola in West Africa so far, the news is also a reminder that we should continue our focus on a global humanitarian aid effort to halt the spread of this devastating disease.