A specially equipped medical plane whisked Ebola-stricken Dr. Kent Brantly from Liberia to Georgia on Saturday, setting up the latest leg of a race to save the man who’s now the first known Ebola patient on U.S. soil.
An ambulance rushed Brantly — one of two Americans seriously sickened by the deadly viral hemorrhagic fever last month while on the front lines of a major outbreak in West Africa — from Dobbins Air Reserve Base to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital shortly after the plane landed late Saturday morning.
Video from Emory showed someone wearing a white, full-body protective suit helping a similarly clad person emerge from the ambulance and walk into the hospital early Saturday afternoon.
Emory has said it will treat Brantly, 33, and eventually the other American, fellow missionary Nancy Writebol, in an isolation unit. There, physicians say they have a better chance to steer them to health while ensuring the virus doesn’t spread — the last point nodding to public fears, notably expressed on social media, that the disease could get a U.S. foothold.
The plane, also equipped with a unit meant to isolate the patient, could take only one patient at a time. Organizers expect the plane will now pick up Writebol in Liberia, hoping it can bring her to Georgia early next week, said Todd Shearer, spokesman for Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse, with which both Americans were affiliated.
“We thank God that they are alive and now have access to the best care in the world,” Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham said in a statement released after Brantly arrived at Emory.
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 in isolation
This will be the first human Ebola test for a U.S. medical facility. But both Brantly and Writebol will be treated at an isolated unit where precautions have long been in place to keep such deadly diseases from spreading, unit supervisor Dr. Bruce Ribner said.
Everything that comes in and out of the unit will be controlled, Ribner told reporters Thursday, and it will have windows and an intercom for staff to interact with patients without being in the room.
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.
There is no FDA-approved treatment for Ebola, and Emory will use what Ribner calls “supportive care.” That means carefully tracking a patient’s symptoms, vital signs and organ function and taking measures, such as blood transfusions and dialysis, to keep him or her as stable as possible.
“We just have to keep the patient alive long enough in order for the body to control this infection,” Ribner said.
Writebol was given an experimental serum this week, Samaritan’s Purse said, though its purpose and effects, if any, weren’t immediately publicized.
The Ebola virus causes viral hemorrhagic fever, which refers to a group of viruses that affect multiple organ systems in the body and are often accompanied by bleeding.
Early symptoms include sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat, but progress to vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function and sometimes internal and external bleeding.
Emory’s isolation unit was created with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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.
The World Health Organization reports that the outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is believed to have infected 1,323 people and killed more than 729 this year, as of July 27.
Fear, conspiracy theories
As official moved to bring Brantly and Writebol 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.
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.