As a North-East hospital gets ready to receive any Ebola patients Health & Education Editor Barry Nelson talked to an expert in infectious diseases

IF you or your family and friends are getting nervous about the growing Ebola virus crisis you could do worse than listen to the calm voice of Dr Anjam Khan.

Despite the seriousness of the outbreak in West Africa - which has seen more than 3,850 people become infected and die - the Newcastle University infectious diseases expert stresses that any isolated outbreak of Ebola virus in the North-East will almost certainly be containable.

Dr Khan, a senior lecturer at the university’s Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences says the high death toll caused by what is a preventable disease reflects the lack of education and resources in what is one of the poorest parts of the world.

The containment of the virus, named after a river in the Congo near where it was first identified in 1976, is not helped by funeral practices which bring villagers into close contact with highly contagious dead bodies.

By contrast, here in the developed world , the authorities are well prepared to contain and treat any outbreak.

Dr Khan, who spends much of his working life studying infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV, points out that in terms of contagiousness Ebola is not in the same league as bird flu, which periodically breaks out, usually in the Far East.

“Ebola is in a different league to bird flu, which we were all getting worried about a few years ago, because bird flu can be passed through the air. In the case of Ebola you need contact between the bodily fluids of an infected patient. For example, if you shake hands with an infected person who has traces of blood, vomit or urine on their hands and you have a break in your skin you could become infected,” says Dr Khan.

“From an epidemiological point of view bird flu would spread much faster than the Ebola virus would,” he adds.

“If someone sneezed with bird flu they release particles into the air which could stay airborne for a few hours. You could breath them in and become infected via your respiratory system. With Ebola that is not the case. The Ebola virus appears to be quite vulnerable when it leaves your body in contrast to the flu virus,” said Dr Khan.

Dr Khan, who is used to working on disease-causing pathogens in a highly controlled environment known as a Containment Level 3 Suite, is confident that the Royal Victoria Infirmary's infectious disease unit is more than able to cope with Ebola cases - although it is understood that the capacity is currently limited.

The RVI unit is one of four centres in the UK that could accommodate Ebola virus patients, along with London, Liverpool and Sheffield. However, the biggest centre is at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Dr Khan is familiar with the strict regimes needed to be put in place to prevent contagions being passed on.

Within his own lab within the university’s Medical Sciences building - the only one of its kind in the North-East - the area is subject to ‘negative air pressure’ which effectively prevents any microscopic pathogens from escaping.

“With Ebola virus you go up to another level. You have body suits, your own air supply, facemasks and showers which you take before and after you go in,” he adds.

Staff who would care for an Ebola patient are specially trained and are on duty for no more than an hour at a time so maximum concentration is maintained.

Dr Khan understands why many people in the North-East are nervous about Ebola - even though the vast majority of cases are in the other side of the world - but wants to assure them that the UK authorities are well prepared for any isolated outbreaks.

This is also the message of Sir Leonard Fenwick, chief executive of the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the high security infectious disease unit at the RVI.

Sir Leonard confirmed that the RVI has two rooms earmarked for potential Ebola patients on a long-established infectious disease unit and that the people of the North-East “have little to fear.”