A deadly haemorrhagic fever with “pandemic potential” has been imported to the UK for the first time in a decade, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said.
On Wednesday, the agency announced there had been two confirmed cases and one probable case of Lassa fever, which is spread by rats.
The three affected patients – all from the same family – had recently returned from West Africa, where the disease is endemic and there is an ongoing outbreak.
The two confirmed cases of the virus are being treated at a specialist secure infectious diseases unit at the Royal Free Hospital in north London. The probable case is being treated at Bedfordshire Hospitals Trust.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, was keen to sound a note of calm and dampen down any fears of disease spread in the UK. However, at the moment it is unclear if anyone else has been infected.
She said: “Cases of Lassa fever are rare in the UK and it does not spread easily between people. The overall risk to the public is very low. We are contacting the individuals who have had close contact with the cases prior to confirmation of their infection, to provide appropriate assessment, support and advice.
“UKHSA and the NHS have well-established and robust infection control procedures for dealing with cases of imported infectious disease and these will be reinforced.”
Prior to these cases, there have been eight cases of Lassa fever imported to the UK since 1980, with the last two cases occurring in 2009.
Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness, similar to Ebola, and people become infected through exposure to food or other items that have been contaminated with urine or faeces of infected rats. The virus can also spread from person to person through body fluids.