The outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa has dominated the news for weeks, with increasing fears that there could be an outbreak in the UK. It all makes for scary reading, but how worried should people in the UK actually be? Is there any reason to panic? And how do you catch the virus anyway?
The current situation
So far, the epidemic has infected more than 8,300 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and more than 4,000 have died.
Experts say the number of people infected in these countries is increasing fast, raising the risk that someone who has contracted the disease will bring it to the UK.
Prevention: better than a cure?
Checks started at Heathrow airport today to test passengers who had travelled from the affected countries and were showing symptoms of the disease. Screening will begin at Gatwick airport and the Eurostar terminal in London by the end of the week.
The move has caused considerable debate, with some critics claiming it will not identify those carriers of Ebola who are not already showing symptoms.
In September, around 1,000 people arrived in the UK from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa, even though some airlines suspended direct flights.
In another attempt to stem the disease, governments around the world are now working together to urgently improve the poor health care on offer in the worst affected countries. Soldiers from the British army have been sent in to help build temporary treatment centres.
There has also been criticism that current moves are coming too late, since the outbreak has been underway since last December, when it is believed a child in Guinea was first infected by a fruit bat bite.
The facts about Ebola
According to the World Health Organisation, it is not an airborne disease, like flu, and can only be caught if you come into direct contact with an infected person's bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit or spit. Even then, to actually transmit the virus, those fluids would have to enter your body through an opening such as the mouth, eyes or an open wound.
Victims are not infectious until they are showing symptoms, such as a fever. This is why nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers have been particularly vulnerable to catching Ebola.
Meanwhile, officials in the UK insist that the risk here is very low, although hospitals are on alert and rehearsing what to do if an infected patient is admitted.
Questions for debate and discussion
- What makes Ebola such a dangerous virus?
What can be done to restrict the spread of Ebola?
Do you think media coverage has affected the public’s perception of Ebola?
Based on current reports and our understanding of Ebola, how do you think it will affect us in the future?
Relevant teaching resources
Help pupils to separate the truth from the hype with this resource pack from ActionAid.
A starter to a science based topic on the Ebola virus, including worksheets and activities.
In this activity, students must assess the clues and work out why certain precautions were taken in an Ebola case.
Pupils can trace the spread of Ebola by shading in affected countries on this map.
A video from SciShow that explores how plants could be used to cure viruses.