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Lassa Fever

Volume 885: debated on Thursday 30 January 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what steps she has taken to protect the health of passengers, aircrew, airport workers and medical staff who came into contact with the passenger, now deceased, suspected of suffering from Lassa fever who entered Great Britain at London Airport nearly two weeks ago aboard Sabena airliner flight No. 611 from Nigeria; what measures are to be introduced to prevent a repetition of this incident; and if she will make a statement.

Lassa fever, which was first reported in 1969 from North-East Nigeria, is a rare virus disease. This is only the second confirmed case of Lassa fever imported into the United Kingdom. The virus is found in a tropical species of rat from which the disease can be transmitted to man. Secondary cases, such as the case to which the hon. Member refers probably was, are less infectious than primary cases, namely, those arising directly from infected rodents.Dr. P. Kennedy, a physician at a Mission Hospital in Nigeria, fell ill on 5th January. Five days later he was taken by air as a stretcher-case accompanied by a nurse from Kano to Brussels—Sabena flight SN438—where he changed planes coming on to Heathrow Airport—Sabena flight 611—arriving at 21.05 hours on 10th January. The Principal Medical Officer at Heathrow Airport had been informed by Sabena Airline on 9th January that Dr. Kennedy would arrive on the following day. The Hospitial for Tropical Diseases was also contacted by Sabena and agreed to accept him for urgent investigation and treatment.Dr. Kennedy had a certificate signed by a consultant in Nigeria that he was suffering from pyrexia of unknown origin and was fit to travel.On arrival at Heathrow, Dr. Kennedy was taken to the port health unit and then transported by ambulance to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, where he died two days later. Lassa fever was suspected as the cause of death and eventually, on 27th January, this diagnosis was confirmed by the Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia. All known contacts at the port health unit, in the ambulance, and at the hospital were placed under surveillance as soon as Lassa fever was suspected and appropriate measures were taken for disposal of the body and terminal disinfection.My Department was informed on Sunday 12th January, by the Medical Officer of Environmetal Health of Camden Borough that Dr. Kennedy was suspected of having Lassa fever. Though the chances of his having transmitted the disease to other passengers were considered slight, the Press and the broadcasting authorities were notified on 13th January and a more detailed Press notice was issued on 14th January, warning passengers on Dr. Kennedy's flights to consult a doctor if they developed feverish illness within the next 14 days and to tell the doctor they might have been in contact with Lassa fever. Any family doctor approached in this way was asked to pass this information to the appropriate medical officr for environmental health. At the same time, the chief medical officer wrote to all the medical officers of environmental health and port medical officers on 14th January to inform them of the case. I am glad to say that the 17-day maximum incubation period has now elapsed without any further cases being reported.During the entire period, close communication was maintained with the World Health Organisation and the Belgian authorities.I am satisfied that the steps taken in this country to protect the health of those involved were satisfactory and met the requirements of the circumstances. The chief medical officer is examining the complex issues raised by cases of Lassa fever with a view to minimising any risk, but, since the early symptoms are nonspecific and no immediate diagnostic tests are available, it is difficult to be certain of preventing another incident. To refuse admission to this country to any British person who was unwell and who wished to return to the United Kingdom for treatment from a tropical area would raise very serious issues of principle and practicability.