Seven new diphtheria cases reported among asylum seekers in England

UK HSA recommends people arriving at reception centres are offered vaccine and preventative treatment as case number hits 57

One person died after falling ill at the Manston immigration centre. A post-mortem test for diphtheria was positive. PA
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Diphtheria cases are rising among asylum seekers who have arrived in England, the UK Health Security Agency (UK HSA) has said.

Seven more cases have been confirmed in England, bringing the total to 57 after infections were also identified at the Manston migrant processing centre, which has been overcrowded with people.

Diphtheria, for which there is a vaccine, is a serious infection that causes breathing difficulties, heart problems and sometimes death.

The UK has been criticised for its handling of arriving refugees, of whom there has been a major surge this year, especially in people crossing the English Channel in unseaworthy small boats.

As government agencies struggled to cope with the influx of people, Manston, a centre where people are meant to stay only for a few days, became overcrowded and a backlog built up.

One person died last month after falling ill at the centre. Hussein Haseeb Ahmed, 31, died at Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother hospital in Margate on November 19 after he was held in Manston, having crossed the Channel seven days earlier.

The Home Office initially said there was no evidence he had died from an infectious disease but a follow-up test for diphtheria was positive.

An inquest into his death opened in Maidstone on Monday and was adjourned until May next year.

Manston is now back to normal operating conditions, the government has said, as asylum seekers are moved around the country while the applications are handled.

“While we continue to see diphtheria cases among asylum seekers, the risk of diphtheria to the wider public remains very low,” said UK HSA diphtheria incident director, Gayatri Amirthalingam,

“This is due to high uptake of the diphtheria vaccine in this country and because the infection is typically passed on through close prolonged contact with a case.

“In order to limit the risk of diphtheria being passed on within asylum-seeker settings, UK HSA continues to recommend that individuals arriving at reception centres, and who have moved on recently, are offered a diphtheria vaccine and preventive treatment.

The UK HSA said seven cases of diphtheria among asylum seekers were reported between November 28 and December 4. In the previous week — from November 21 to November 27 — five new cases were reported.

There were 44 cases recorded in the South-Wast region and fewer than five in each of London, the West Midlands, the South-West, the North-East and the North-West, the latest report said.

No breakdown by county has been provided but Kent, home to Manston and Margate, is in the South-East region.

Last week, Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said that asylum seekers with symptoms of diphtheria would be put into isolation.

He said migrants showing signs of the highly contagious disease would be separated for a “short period” at Manston or held in a “designated isolation centre” while they are treated.

Any asylum seekers who may have the infection but are already in hotels will be told to isolate in their rooms while they are treated.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman faced criticism about overcrowding and outbreaks of disease at Manston.

UK HSA data shows the first case was reported in February but no more were registered until June. Fresh cases have been reported every month since. The total number of cases hit double figures in October and has continued rising.

The illness — which affects the nose, throat and sometimes skin — can be fatal if not treated quickly but antibiotics and other medicines are available.

Some public health experts raised concerns about the risk of the disease spread as migrants were moved to hotels.

Updated: December 07, 2022, 1:12 PM