Yinka Ibukun, Simeon Bennett and Marie French (c) 2014, Bloomberg News.
NEW YORK — Kent Brantly, a 33-year-old doctor who volunteered to fight deadly Ebola in Africa soon after finishing his hospital residency in Fort Worth, is one of two U.S. citizens being treated for the disease.
“We’re just trusting God for his life,” the physician’s mother, Jan Brantly, said by telephone Monday. “We’re praying, and we’re sustained by our faith.”
Ebola has killed 672 people in four West African nations since March, the worst outbreak since the virus was first reported in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. With no known cure, the illness can lead to bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose, and causes death in as many as 90 percent of those who get it.
More than 1,200 people have been infected, the World Health Organization said today in a statement.
Both Brantly, the medical director of the Ebola center run by Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia, and Nancy Writebol, a worker at the center, are being treated there, the Boone, North Carolina-based charity said in a statement. They are each married with two children, the group said. The doctor’s family is in the United States; it’s unclear where Writebol’s family is.
The Ebola virus is transmitted from wild animals including chimpanzees, gorillas and bats, according to the Geneva-based WHO. Humans spread it through contact with bodily fluids. It causes fever, diarrhea and vomiting.
Nigeria reported its first case last week after an infected Liberian man landed in Lagos, Africa’s largest city. Liberia has shut all minor border crossings and is setting up testing centers at major entry points, AllAfrica.com reported, citing a government statement. The disease victim, Peter Sawyer, worked at Liberia’s finance ministry.
Liberia shut the ministry Monday and said officials who had contact with Sawyer will be watched for signs of the illness. The ministry will reopen Tuesday.
“As this epidemic goes on, this sort of thing is eventually probably going to happen,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading in Britain, speaking of how the outbreak may spread.
Still, the chances of the virus spreading by air travel outside of Africa is small, Neuman said.
“If you look at the numbers, there are probably about 300 people who are currently infected with Ebola virus, and most of those would be too ill to sit up or walk,” Neuman said by telephone. “So the odds are small, but it is something that needs to be watched.”
Only one case has ever been reported of an Ebola infection being exported outside Africa, according to David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1994, in a 34-year-old Swiss woman was infected in Ivory Coast while performing an autopsy on a dead chimpanzee. She was repatriated to Switzerland and recovered without infecting anyone else.
Brantly completed his four-year residency in family medicine, with one year of child and maternal health, at JPS Health Network in Fort Worth, in June 2013, and left for Liberia the same month, said J.R. Labbe, a system spokeswoman.
Samaritan’s Purse, a nonprofit religious organization founded in 1970, has had offices in Liberia for more than a decade. The group, with 374 people working on Ebola in Liberia, runs case management centers in Foya and Monrovia, said Melissa Strickland, a spokeswoman for the group, in a telephone interview today. The Monrovia Center Brantly ran has 20 beds and is caring for 14 patients, according to its website.
Brantly is in stable condition, Strickland said, adding, “It’s easy to figure out what kind of person volunteers to take on this mission. He’s a highly skilled professional, he’s courageous, he’s compassionate.”
Brantly’s religious faith is “critical to his identity,” she said.
Nancy Writebol was volunteering with a Christian missionary organization Serving in Mission, or SIM, which is based in Fort Mills, South Carolina, according to the group’s website. She works at the center in Monrovia with her husband, David, assisting nursing staff and coordinating care of missionaries and short-term workers in the country.
Medical staff are at the highest risk of contracting the virus because of their proximity to patients. Health workers attending to the patient should wear gloves, gowns and face visors to prevent contact between the patient’s bodily fluids and their own mucus membranes, such as the eyes, mouth, nose and ears, said Heymann, who has studied Ebola since 1976.
Strickland called Brantly “meticulous,” saying that’s why he was given the job in the first place. “We have every confidence that those protocols were not breached,” she said. The group is investigating how Brantly may have been exposed, according to Strickland.
A top Liberian doctor, Samuel Brisbane, died over the weekend after treating Ebola patients, the country’s Ministry of Health said Monday. The physician in charge of Ebola treatment in Sierra Leone, Sheik Umar Khan, contracted the virus last week.
“People who have been in contact should be under fever surveillance, they should have their temperature taken twice a day and if they became febrile they should be immediately isolated,” Heymann said by telephone from London yesterday.
A confirmatory test from the Nigerian case will be sent to Dakar in Senegal, said Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman. The Geneva-based WHO is sending disease-trackers to Lagos, including a specialist in burial practices to make sure the risk of further transmission is limited, he said.
“Every time there is an infection in a new location it is a serious development, but the principle remains the same,” Jasarevic said by phone from Sierra Leone. “You have to identify this person, test them, identify the contacts and follow them for 21 days.”
Denial the disease exists, hostility to medical workers, a lack of medical supplies and below-standard hygiene are complicating efforts to contain the spread of the disease. In Sierra Leone, victims’ families have attacked doctors, while in neighboring Liberia the husband of a victim tried to burn the hospital down where his wife died.
In recent surveys by Samaritan’s Purse, 84 percent of 2,920 Monrovia residents surveyed said they didn’t believe Ebola was real, according to the group’s website.
— Ibukun reported from Lagos, Bennett from Geneva.