ATLANTA (CNN) — A seriously ill American Ebola patient arrived in his home country from Liberia late Saturday morning, delivered in a specially equipped medical plane on his way to an Atlanta hospital prepared to treat the first-ever Ebola victim known to be on U.S. soil.
An ambulance rushed Dr. Kent Brantly, one of two Americans stricken by the deadly viral hemorrhagic fever while helping with a major outbreak in West Africa, from Georgia’s Dobbins Air Reserve Base to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital shortly after the plane landed.
Emory has said it will treat Brantly, 33, and eventually the other American — fellow missionary Nancy Writebol — in a special isolation unit, where physicians believe they’ll have a better chance to steer them back to health while ensuring the virus doesn’t spread.
Organizers expect the plane will return to Liberia to pick up Writebol, and they hope she can be brought to Georgia early next week, said Todd Shearer, spokesman for Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse with whom both Americans were affiliated.
Brantly, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Writebol, of North Carolina, became sick while caring for Ebola patients in Liberia, one of three West African nations hit by an outbreak that health officials believe has sickened more than 1,300 people and killed more than 700 this year.
Treatment at Emory hospital
Both Brantly and Writebol are to be taken to a special isolation unit at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital.
Dr. Bruce Ribner, who oversees the unit, emphasized that precautions are in place to prevent the virus from spreading.
Everything that comes in and out of the unit will be controlled, he said, and it will have windows and an intercom for staff to interact with patients without being in the room.
The Emory unit was created in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is based down the road. It aims to optimize care for those with highly infectious diseases and is one of four U.S. institutions capable of providing such treatment.
Still, Emory has not had any experience dealing with Ebola, nor has any U.S. medical facility had a known patient with the virus.
“This particular pathogen is new to the United States,” Ribner said.
In the 1990s, an Ebola strain tied to monkeys — Ebola-Reston — was found in the United States, but no humans got sick from it, according to the CDC.
The World Health Organization reports that the outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has infected more than 1,300 people and killed more than 700 this year.
Ebola is not airborne or waterborne, and spreads through contact with organs and bodily fluids such as blood, saliva, urine and other secretions of infected people.
Fear, conspiracy theories
As the patients make their way home, the idea of purposefully bringing Ebola into the United States has rattled many nerves.
“The road to hell was paved with good intentions,” wrote one person, using the hashtag #EbolaOutbreak. “What do we say to our kids When they get sick& die?”
On the website of conspiracy talker Alex Jones, who has long purported the CDC could unleash a pandemic and the government would react by instituting authoritarian rule, the news was a feast of fodder.
“Feds would exercise draconian emergency powers if Ebola hits U.S.,” a headline read on infowars.com.
Ribner repeatedly downplayed the risk for anyone who will be in contact with Brantly or Writebol.
“We have two individuals who are critically ill, and we feel that we owe them the right to receive the best medical care,” Ribner said.
The fight against Ebola
All concerns about the United States pale in comparison to the harsh reality in the hardest-hit areas.
Even in the best-case scenario, it could take three to six months to stem the epidemic in West Africa, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC.
This is “an unprecedented outbreak accompanied by unprecedented challenges,” Dr. Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organization, said Friday.
Addressing the leaders of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, Chan noted that the virus is moving over porous borders, by plane. It has gone into rural areas where it’s hard to get adequate treatment, as well as crowded cities where it can spread more easily.
“This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” she said. “If things keep getting worse, it could kill many more people, disrupt societies and economies, and spread to other countries.
There’s no vaccine, though one is in the works.
There’s no standardized treatment for the disease, either; the most common approach is to support organ functions and keep up bodily fluids such as blood and water long enough for the body to fight off the infection.
The National Institutes of Health plans to begin testing an experimental Ebola vaccine in people as early as September. Tests on primates have been successful.
So far, the outbreak is confined to West Africa. Although infections are dropping in Guinea, they are on the rise in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
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