Vigilant schools build up their Ebola resistance

17th October 2014 at 01:00
Headteachers urged to take precautions against outbreak

Schools across the country are on alert over fears that there could be an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the UK.

Boarding schools with international students have reported that they will be monitoring the travel of pupils and their families during the upcoming half-term and Christmas holidays to reduce the risk of the virus being spread.

Nearly 1,000 Nigerians and more than 400 pupils from other parts of Africa attend UK boarding schools, and many of them may return home during the school holidays. But headteachers have said that the more likely risk would be pupils coming into contact with people who had travelled to the affected areas.

The Boarding Schools' Association has this week issued guidance to its 500 members after it received a number of calls from concerned headteachers. But it will be up to individual schools to make their own decisions based on local circumstances.

Meanwhile, in the South London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, which have large communities of people from the affected West African countries, council leaders have written to headteachers urging them to keep up to date with official Public Health England (PHE) guidance.

The letter reads: "While the very low even for people travelling to the affected countries, there is a need to have in place all measures to prevent any risk of transmission."

The latest PHE document advising schools makes it clear that the risk of Ebola coming to the UK is minimal but also provides a step-by-step guide for dealing with pupils who have a suspected Ebola infection.

Anyone showing symptoms who has arrived from Sierra Leone, Guinea or Liberia in the past 21 days should be placed in a separate room and staff should call an ambulance, making it clear that they have a suspected case of Ebola.

When the pupil has been taken to hospital, local health officials should be contacted and the area the pupil was in should be thoroughly disinfected.

The move comes after news last week that a primary school in Stockport cancelled a planned a visit by a charity worker from Sierra Leone and her son because of "hysteria" among parents afraid for their own children's safety.

Heathrow Airport began screening passengers for Ebola on Tuesday and health secretary Jeremy Hunt warned it was likely that there would be an outbreak in the UK "by Christmas".

Outside Africa, outbreaks have already been recorded in the US and Spain, in both cases as the result of infected people coming into the countries and subsequently transmitting the virus to health-care workers.

In Nigeria, 20 people contracted Ebola after a Liberian-American man with the disease arrived there and passed it on to medics. A huge containment exercise, including the closure of all schools, is believed to have prevented a more serious outbreak in Africa's most populous country.

Elaine Purves, headteacher of Rossall School, a boarding school in Fleetwood, Lancashire, which teaches pupils from 50 countries, said she had been watching the situation closely for some time.

The school sent a letter to parents in August asking them to report if their child had been to the affected countries or come into close contact with someone who had. Staff believed to be at risk were asked to get a signed medical assessment from their GP, while pupils had the option of being checked by the school doctor "immediately upon arrival" at the start of term.

A similar letter will be sent out to keep track of the movements of staff and pupils during half-term.

"We have been monitoring it all through the summer," Ms Purves said. "We were conscious that anybody could have been in Africa over the holidays. And we are gearing up now to do it again as everyone is going off-site.

"I'm really pleased there's so much more awareness now - the rest of the world is waking up to it."

Ms Purves said it did not matter if a school identified itself as "international" or not, because anyone could have visited the affected countries or come into close contact with someone who had. She added that staff from the school had recently attended an event in Nigeria to recruit new boarders, and had been impressed with how the country was dealing with the Ebola threat.

Robin Fletcher, national director of the Boarding Schools' Association, who sent out the official advice to schools last Friday, said: "With a rich mix of overseas students, you do get concerns being raised and questions being asked.

"What we are saying is that it is a managed situation.and every school has a nurse who can keep up to date with the latest official advice."

Handling Ebola

  • Risk assessment procedure from Public Health England (PHE) for educational, childcare and young person settings:
  • Does the child or student show symptoms such as fever, diarrhoea and vomiting, and weakness?
  • If no, continue as normal. If yes, ask if the child has arrived from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone or has spent any time in these countries within the past 21 days.
  • If yes, refer the child to NHS services and inform the parents. Tell the ambulance service that the child has recently returned from an Ebola-affected area and you suspect they have Ebola.
  • While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the unwell person should be kept apart from other children in a separate room.
  • Contact your local PHE centre, which will help with any further action - for example, following up with the child's contacts.
  • Thorough cleaning and decontamination is advised and this should be discussed with the PHE centre.

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