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Port health in the dark over Zika

Tom Wall10/02/2016 - 12:55

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Infected seafarers could be arriving in the UK
Infected seafarers could be arriving in the UK

Most port health officers have not been told what they should do if they suspect air crew and travellers coming into the country have the Zika virus, the Association of Port Health Authorities has warned.

Lynnette Crossley, a senior port health officer and APHA committee member, told EHN Public Health England (PHE) had not yet circulated any guidance to ports other than those receiving direct passenger flights from the affected areas.

‘I believe that Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester have been in discussions with PHE, but apart from what is available through the media, we have received no specific guidance. The same thing happened with Ebola. It was some weeks before we got anything concrete from them.’

‘I am particularly concerned because there are indirect passenger flights and cargo flights from affected areas coming into the UK. There are South American, Central American and Caribbean air crew and seafarers, and seafarers who have recently visited ports in those areas. We want to be able to give them comprehensive, accurate and complete information,’ she said.

Laurence Dettman, a chief port health officer and APHA committee chair, said authorities with airports were eagerly awaiting guidance from PHE.

‘The fear is that with Ebola there was a very long delay in issuing proper guidance to port health authorities. And here we are with the next one along Zika and fear the same thing is going to be repeated,’ he said.

In August EHN reported that port health officers were being forced to produce their own health controls to protect ports and airports from Ebola.

Professor Nick Phin, deputy director of national infection service and incident director at Public Health England (PHE), told EHN that advice would be provided to Port Health Authorities.

‘Public Health England has a continuous open channel of communication with Port Health Authorities through national and local organisations.  Updated, specific advice on Zika will be provided on an ongoing basis.  In addition PHE’s local health protection teams and directors of public health have also received advice from PHE so there is shared understanding of the current overseas outbreak,’ he said.

The warning comes after Jane Ellison, public health minister, asked airlines to use insecticide on all flights returning to the UK from countries with confirmed transmission of Zika.

This measure is thought to reduce the risk of passengers being bitten by any mosquitoes that could have entered the aircraft. It already occurs on the majority of flights from the region as a precaution against malaria.

However the type of mosquito that transmits the virus is extremely unlikely to survive and breed in the UK.

Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the issue of microcephaly – which causes birth defects - a public health emergency of international concern.

A causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven.


Between January 2014 and 5 February 2016, a total of 33 countries have reported circulation of Zika virus (see above). There is also indirect evidence of transmission in six additional countries.

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