EXPERT'S WARNING ON WARSHIP ILLNESS
02 September 2006
An expert in public health has warned that more potentially deadly illnesses on a front-line warship could follow after two further cases of active tuberculosis (TB) were diagnosed on a Westcountry-based vessel. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed that five crew members of HMS Ocean, the Devonport-based amphibious helicopter carrier and assault ship, now have the infectious form of the disease after TB first emerged in May.
The unidentified crewmen have been prescribed with up to six months of antibiotics to keep the life-threatening illness under control.
The MoD last night said that all five cases of active TB were confined to the marine engineering department, which is responsible for mechanics and electrics. Fifty-five latent forms of the illness emerged on board following a screening process of the entire crew.
The latent form produces no symptoms and is not contagious, as the bacteria are not active, although they can become active in later life if another disease puts pressure on the immune system.
The MoD said the two new cases of active TB had developed from the 29 latent forms apparent within the marine engineering department. The source of the original infection is still not known.
Dr Josep Vidal-Alaball, a GP and specialist registrar for the National Public Health Service for Wales, an expert in the disease, said that if all of the crew members had been screened there was every chance of limiting the full-blown infection. As such, sailors with latent TB have been given a three-month course of antibiotics.
Dr Vidal-Alaball, a former doctor at Plymouth's Derriford Hospital, said: "There could be more. There have been a lot of outbreaks in prisons, and it's a very similar situation - people together in a small space for a long time with a lack of ventilation.
"He said the level of the disease would only be a major concern if around 10 per cent of the 400-strong crew were taken ill with active TB - a figure that would be "very high". He said: "People outside the ship shouldn't be concerned."Rates of TB have been rising in the UK in recent years, with 7,000 cases being reported last year. The disease is most common in the lungs and lymph glands. TB is responsible for three million deaths a year worldwide, mainly in developing countries.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said of HMS Ocean: "There are now five [cases of active TB] of which two were suspected at the end of last week. One member of the crew developed TB earlier this year and there have been four further with active TB."HMS Ocean is docked in Devonport ahead of deployment for low-flying helicopter exercises over Wales and the South West on Monday.
The ship was moored away from its Westcountry home when the latest cases of TB emerged after it had been withdrawn from last weekend's Navy Days event at Devonport after consideration was given to public health and confidence.
The third crew member struck down with tuberculosis has already returned to service.