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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 13:18 GMT
UK 'faces tropical disease threat'
Mosquitoes can carry a variety of diseases
Increased foreign travel and rising immigration are bringing a host of dangerous tropical illnesses to the UK, the government's chief medical advisor has warned.

A report by Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer for England, picks out dozens of potentially serious infections which have emerged worldwide in the past 30 years.

To combat the problem, the government is to set up a National Infection Control and Health Protection Agency to inform the public about the risks posed by rare tropical infections, and warn doctors about reports of unusual outbreaks.

Other plans include:

  • A national expert panel to assess the threat from new and emerging infectious diseases
  • A strengthened and expanded system of infectious disease surveillance
  • A programme of new vaccine development
  • A new Inspector of Microbiology
The vogue for "adventure travel" to more remote parts of the world substantially increases the risk to the population at large.


Tropical disease threats
Sleeping sickness
Dengue fever
West Nile Virus
Ebola and other haemorrhagic fevers
Sir Liam's report gives the example of at least one person who came into contact with Ebola patients in Uganda in 2000, and then fell ill after travelling to the UK.

And he warns that climate change is allowing many infectious agents, or rather the creatures that carry them, to prosper in traditionally cooler areas.

One example is the emergence of West Nile Virus in the US and Canada in recent years.

The fever, which caused two human deaths in 2000, is carried by birds and transmitted to humans via mosquitoes which feed on the blood of both.

Dire warning

Dominic Wightman
Dominic Wightman contracted Japanese encephalitis
Sir Liam's report says: "Given the nature of micro-organisms that cause infection, the path of human behaviour and changes to the environment, further newly emergent diseases are inevitable.

"It is essential to expect the unexpected."

In England 40% of people consult a health professional each year because of infection and infections account for 70,000 deaths each year.

The rise of exotic international destinations has been explosive over recent years.

Last year, 750,000 people went to north Africa, and nearly 2m to Latin America.

The Ebola virus has raised concerns
Surveys show that many tourists travelling to these areas neglect to be vaccinated for even well-known diseases such as hepatitis and typhoid.

Professor Donaldson has also recommended action to tackle the re-emergence of TB, often in drug-resistant forms, in the UK, as well as the recent rise in the number of people becoming infected with HIV.

Sir Liam said: "One of the greatest challenges for public health services in developed countries like ours is the rapid identification of new or previously unknown infectious diseases.

"Bacteria and viruses recognise no international boundaries. Modern methods of travel can disperse infectious agents far and wide.

"Good surveillance and rapid response are keys to protecting the public's health.

"The big danger is organisms changing their shape, they are very good at evolving quickly."

Malaria threat

Dr Peter Chiodini
Dr Peter Chiodini said people were dying unnecessarily
Dr Peter Chiodini, of the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, said malaria was a particular problem, particularly because the early symptoms can be confused with flu.

He told the BBC: "Each year there are people who die in Britain from malaria entirely unnecessarily because they have either not had appropriate advice or not followed the advice and taken the preventive measures.

"This is unacceptable and is something that needs to be improved by better quality advice, better adherence to preventive measures, and much better clinical suspicion of the diagnosis when they come back."

Dominic Wightman contracted Japanese encephalitis during a three day trip to Tokyo to attend his friend's wedding.

Only one in five people survive the infection of the brain without permanent disability.

He told the BBC: "I lost my speech, I lost my feeling in my arms and legs, I was vomiting a lot and collapsed."

The BBC's Niall Dickson
"As we travel so do the bugs"
Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson
"We don't want people to be frightened"
Peter Chiodini, Hospital for Tropical Diseases
"We feel the advice that is given out needs to be improved"
See also:

20 Oct 00 | Medical notes
Ebola and other tropical viruses
09 May 01 | Health
Rabies victim dies in hospital
30 Jun 01 | Health
Rising disease risk of UK ticks
10 Jan 02 | Health
Tropical diseases
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