(Bloomberg) — The first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.K., a Scottish nurse who returned from helping to fight the virus in Sierra Leone, is receiving specialist treatment at a London hospital prepared to handle infectious-disease cases.
The nurse, 39-year-old Pauline Cafferkey, was hospitalized in Glasgow and then flown to an isolation unit at the Royal Free Hospital, according to a statement from the hospital. While health officials are gathering airline passenger lists and seeking anyone the nurse may have come in contact with, they said it’s unlikely that others have been infected.
She “did not experience any symptoms consistent with the transmission of Ebola, and as such, the risk that this infection will have been passed from the affected individual to others is extremely unlikely,” Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director of Public Health England, said in a statement.
Cafferkey is a National Health Service nurse who was helping to fight the Ebola outbreak at a treatment center run by Save the Children in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, according to the medical aid charity. She arrived in Scotland late Dec. 28 and after feeling unwell was placed in isolation at Gartnavel General Hospital. She was in stable condition before being transported to London, according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the head of Scotland’s government.
Cafferkey flew to London’s Heathrow airport via Casablanca, Morocco, on Royal Air Maroc, then on to Glasgow on a British Airways flight, according to the government.
The nurse was cleared for flying from Heathrow even after she complained of feeling feverish.
On a standard initial check, she “did not have a raised temperature” and no symptoms, Cosford told reporters. While waiting for her flight, she returned for another look because she thought her temperature had risen. She was checked an additional six times, with no indication of fever.
She flew from Freetown to Casablanca on Flight AT596, and from Casablanca to London on Flight AT0800. The London-to- Glasgow flight was BA1478.
The nurse had no symptoms when she flew from Casablanca to London, Taoufik Skalli, Royal Air Maroc’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. The airline screens passengers for fever using infrared cameras and has medical kits on board to contain risk in case a passenger shows symptoms, Skalli said.
People coming from West African countries affected by Ebola are identified for screening at Heathrow even if they have changed flights on their journey, according to the U.K. Home Office.
Public Health England is arranging for all passengers and crew on the flight from Casablanca to Heathrow to be provided with information and will be contacting and following up with those passengers who sat near the nurse, the agency said in a statement. Health Protection Scotland is carrying out a similar exercise for the passengers on the Heathrow-to-Glasgow flight.
There were more than 70 passengers and crew on the flight to Glasgow. As of early afternoon, most people had been spoken to or sent a message, including all travelers who sat near the infected woman, Sturgeon told reporters. A precise number of passengers on the previous flight wasn’t immediately available.
Passengers who sat near the nurse have been asked to monitor their temperatures until Jan. 18, a step Cosford called “highly precautionary.”
Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, has said that the U.K. should expect a handful of cases, given the number of aid workers helping in the Ebola crisis. “We still need every single one of them out there helping to get on top of this epidemic,” she said today.
Ebola is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids of a person infected who has also developed symptoms. The interval from infection to the onset of symptoms, or incubation period, is 2 to 21 days, according to World Health Organization guidelines. The virus isn’t passed through the air.
More than 2,200 people have returned to the U.K. from Ebola-affected countries, Cosford said. “Risk to the public remains very low.”
Anyone who develops symptoms characteristic of Ebola within 21 days of returning from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea should stay at home and telephone emergency services to say they may have come into contact with someone with Ebola, according to the U.K. government. Symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat and rash.
Save the children
The Kerry Town center, opened Nov. 5 under a plan for 80 beds, is run by Save the Children as part of a U.K. government commitment to supply and support more than 1,000 beds in Sierra Leone, a former British colony. A Cuban doctor who became infected at the clinic was flown to Geneva for treatment and has recovered.
The charity is working with government agencies to look into the circumstances of the infection of the nurse now receiving treatment, it said in an e-mailed statement.
More than 20,000 people have been infected in the world’s worst-ever Ebola outbreak, mostly in the three countries, according to the World Health Organization. More than 7,800 have died. Medical workers in the U.S. and Spain have also been infected after caring for people who had contractedEbola.
Hundreds of health-care workers have been infected, and of the approximately 500 physicians who have contracted the illness, more than half have died.
Cafferkey had been writing a diary for The Scotsman newspaper, chronicling her experiences in Sierra Leone. She relates her sorrow at seeing a young boy watch his mother die, learning later that he had already lost his father to Ebola. And she tells of the joy when a cured patient takes a “happy shower,” the last chlorine wash before release.
She also describes living in a “wee shack on the beach” and vomiting from the window of a bus after taking oral rehydration salts necessary after working in protective gear in extreme heat. The Glaswegian was inspired to be a public health nurse after seeing images of the famine in Ethiopia on television in the 1980s, according to the diary.
The Royal Free successfully treated William Pooley, a British health worker who was infected in Sierra Leone this year and flown to the hospital’s high-level isolation unit. Pooley recovered and was discharged in September. He returned to Sierra Leone to continue working.
Treatment options for Cafferkey include plasma from a survivor — perhaps Pooley — as well as anti-viral medicines and electrolytes, Davies said.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron convened a meeting today of the cabinet’s emergency committee, or Cobra, to discuss the case. Cameron thanked the Ministry of Defence and others involved in the hospital transportation, and paid tribute to her and “all those working to save lives in Sierra Leone,” a spokesman said.
“He was reassured that the robust and well-practiced procedures that had been put in place were being followed and that the risk to the general public remained very low,” the spokesman said.
– With assistance from Tom Beardsworth in London, Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh, Sonja Elmquist in New York and Andrea Rothman in Toulouse.