A woman is feared to have died from ebola after taking ill on a plane home from Africa yesterday.
Passengers and crew on the flight to Heathrow are understood to be panicking that they have contracted the contagious virus.
They helped the Briton when she was vomiting and bleeding. Some even shared their drinks with her.
Last night, tests were being run to confirm whether she had the haemorraghic fever.
The 38-year-old was on Virgin Atlantic flight VS602 from Johannesburg. It is understood she worked at an embassy in Lesotho.
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First, I’ll note that this story was dated May 20th, and I wasn’t able to find any updates (but admittedly, I’m not familiar with the London newspapers, so if anyone has any additional info, please pass it along…) So whether this actually happened, and if it did, if it was Ebola, is a bit fuzzy. Still, it’s a nice jumping-off point to discuss viral hemorrhagic fevers and their spread via travel.
So, first–just because she was vomiting blood and died, while obviously horrible, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s Ebola. Other hemorrhagic fevers are much more common, such as Lassa, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF), Rift Valley fever (RVF), and even yellow fever (YF) can cause hemorrhagic disease.
I’ve put up a map of Africa above so you can quickly see where Lesotho is in southern Africa (surrounded by South Africa, actually). Lassa generally occurs in west Africa, so that’s probably unlikely, but the others either are endemic to southern Africa or at least have cases on record from that area of the continent, so they’re possibilities and seem more likely than Ebola.
It should be noted that 2 cases of Ebola have been diagnosed in South Africa previously, but they didn’t originate there: a traveller from Gabon was treated at a hospital in Johannesburg, where he infected a nurse (who died from the infection). Marburg is another possibility; it’s also been introduced to South Africa by a traveller (from Zimbabwe this time), causing secondary infections in a nurse and the traveller’s companion. Especially if the deceased woman had been travelling throughout the continent before heading to London, she could have come into contact with a number of agents of hemorrhagic fever besides Ebola.
The good news is that none of these viral hemorrhagic fevers mentioned are highly contagious. Both Ebola and Marburg have spread to others, but close contact has always been involved: nursing sick relatives, sharing needles, being exposed to contaminated body fluids. (The Reston strain of Ebola seems to be an exception, but it also hasn’t caused any known illness in man). CCHF is tick-borne (though it can also be acquired by direct contact with infected tissue) and doesn’t spread by casual contact. Lassa fever is generally spread to humans via infected rodent droppings or very close human contact (including, again, direct contact with infected body fluids). The same situation exists with RVF and YF: both are mosquito-borne diseases, but can also be transmitted via direct contact with infected tissues. So, it’s unlikely that a planeful of passengers has to worry about contracting Ebola (or a similar hemorrhagic fever disease). However, they do mention that some passengers shared drinks with the infected woman. I can’t imagine that someone would drink from the same cup or straw after they’d just provided it to someone who’s visibly ill, but if they did, the would be the ones to focus on as far as future development of symptoms (though even that seems like a stretch to me). If any passengers or medical personnel had direct contact with blood from the patient, they also have a chance of becoming infected (though simple barriers, such as gloves and lab coats, significantly reduce the risk of transmission of these types of viruses).
This does, however, highlight just how quickly one of these “exotic” agents can be in our own backyard. It’s certainly happened previously, where a businessman travelled through Sierra Leone through London and died in New Jersey from Lassa fever. It’s happened before, and it will likely happen again, whether it’s due to Ebola or another virus.
Image from http://rhodesian.server101.com/AFRICA_MAP.gif; thanks to David for the link to the story!