UPDATE (4:20 p.m. EDT): A doctor at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta announced at a press conference this afternoon that both American missionaries infected with Ebola will be treated in its isolation ward.
Dr. Bruce Ribner, an infectious disease specialist at the Emory School of Medicine, told reporters he learned in the last hour that the hospital will be receiving both Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who contracted Ebola in Liberia while treating other patients. One will arrive in the next couple of days, and the other will arrive a couple of days later, he said.
Samaritan's Purse was the first to contact Emory, Ribner said, and he assured the organization the hospital could care for both patients. "We are talking about a virus that is spread in a way we are quite used to," Ribner said. HIV, for example, also spreads through contact with blood and other fluids, he said. Emory works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is based nearby, and has treated SARS before, as well as other dangerous diseases.
But some Americans, especially Atlanta residents, continued to voice concerns on social media about bringing Ebola to the United States. But Ribner said "we don't believe there is any likelihood at all" that anyone in America will contract Ebola. Ribner himself will be one of the doctors coming into direct contact with Brantly and Writebol, and he has "no concern" about his own safety.
OUR EALIER REPORT: The American missionaries who contracted Ebola in Liberia are being evacuated to the United States. At least one will be headed to a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Dr. Kent Brantly and hygienist Nancy Writebol, who work for North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse and Serving in Mission, remained in serious condition Friday. At least 729 people in West Africa have died since cases emerged in March, prompting the ministries to evacuate about 60 staff and family members, who they say should be back in America by Monday.
In the cases of Brantly and Writebol, this will be the first time Ebola has been treated in the United States. White House officials said Thursday the government had been looking into options to bring the pair home, with Press Secretary Josh Earnest saying the government likely would use a private company to transport them.
CNN later reported a U.S.-contracted medical charter flight left Cartersville, Ga., for Liberia on Thursday, and officials at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital sent a memo to physicians warning that one of the Americans would arrive “within the next several days.” The hospital declined to identify which aid worker, citing privacy laws. But the facility has a special isolation unit operated in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is based nearby.
Government officials have so far not confirmed their involvement in the evacuation.
News of plans to bring the pair home came after 400 Christians met for prayer Wednesday at Calvary Church in Charlotte, N.C., where Writebol is a member. According to WCNC-TV, her husband David called and spoke with pastors about his wife’s condition. “I want to be a bit cautious, but she’s sitting up and talking with us, moving about,” Writebol said. In a statement released yesterday, Brantly’s wife Amber said her husband “is strong and peaceful and confident in the love of Jesus Christ, which is his sustenance right now.”
Not everyone is glad about the evacuation, though. Because of the publicity surrounding the American victims, tensions escalated on social media Friday. Billionaire Donald Trump called U.S. leaders “incompetent,” tweeting “KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!” Half-serious banter about the potential for the virus to spread cited recent pandemic movies and television shows, including AMC’s Walking Dead series, which is filmed in Atlanta and surrounding areas.
But CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said the ingredients for a U.S. outbreak simply aren’t there. Even if an infected traveler reached the United States, Frieden said, the public risk is very low. Patients are contagious only when they show symptoms, and U.S. hospitals are well equipped to isolate victims.
Frieden also noted that only about 10,000 travelers from the affected countries come to America in an average three- or four-month period, and most do not arrive on direct flights. The CDC has long had staff at 20 U.S. airports and border crossings to evaluate travelers.
The CDC did, however, issue a travel warning to the affected countries. "The bottom line is Ebola is worsening in West Africa,” Frieden said. The purpose of the travel warning—the highest alert level since Asia’s 2003 SARS outbreak—is to protect U.S. travelers and limit their use of overburdened facilities for injuries or other illnesses, he said.
The case of a 24-year-old Maryland man underscores the danger the crisis has created for all patients in the affected areas. Nathaniel Dennis contracted an unknown disease while visiting family in Liberia, and medical personnel placed him in an Ebola isolation ward by mistake. He died because he could not leave the country to receive proper treatment, his family claims. They are still waiting for Liberian officials to return the student’s body to the United States.
Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned Friday that the situation, which has now reached three African capitals for the first time, could be at a tipping point. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries,” she said.
Ebola is spread by direct contact with blood or bodily fluids, and no vaccine or cure exists. The fatality rate has been about 60 percent, and scenes of patients bleeding from the eyes, mouth, and ears have led many relatives to keep their sick family members at home. WHO has said it plans to launch a $100 million response plan that includes deploying hundreds more health care workers to the affected countries.
USA Today reports the National Institutes of Health will begin trials in September on a vaccine it has spent years developing. Progress has accelerated with Food and Drug Administration involvement and interest from pharmaceutical companies that didn’t see profit potential before the outbreak. But even with fast-tracked trials, it likely will be at least 2015 before even Africa’s most at-risk health workers have access to the vaccine.