NEW YORK — Two U.S. aid workers seriously ill with Ebola will be brought from West Africa to Atlanta for treatment in one of the most tightly sealed isolation units in the country, officials said Friday.
One is expected to arrive Saturday, and the other a few days later, according to officials at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, where the two will be treated. They are due to arrive in a private jet outfitted with a special, portable tent designed for transporting patients with highly infectious diseases.
It will be the first time anyone infected with the disease has been brought into the country. U.S. officials are confident the patients can be treated without putting the public in any danger.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids from an infected person, not through the air.
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The two Americans — Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol — worked for U.S. missionary groups in Liberia at a hospital that treated Ebola patients. The State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are assisting the groups in their transfer.
The government is working to ensure that any Ebola-related evacuations “are carried out safely, thereby protecting the patient and the American public,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday.
A Department of Defense spokesman said Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga., will be used for the transfer.
The aircraft is a Gulfstream jet fitted with what essentially is a collapsible clear tent designed to house a single patient and stop any infectious germs from escaping. It was built to transfer CDC employees exposed to contagious diseases for treatment. The CDC said the private jet can only accommodate one patient at a time.
Brantly and Writebol are in serious condition Friday, according to the North Carolina-based charity Samaritan’s Purse, which is paying for their transfer and medical care.
An Emory emergency-medical team in Liberia has evaluated the two aid workers and deemed both stable enough for the trip to Atlanta, said Emory’s Dr. Bruce Ribner. Hospital spokesman Vincent Dollard said the first patient was scheduled to arrive Saturday.
Brantly, 33, works for Samaritan’s Purse while Writebol works for another U.S. mission group called SIM. Late last week, Samaritan’s Purse officials said Brantly had tested positive for the virus. Shortly after that announcement, Writebol’s infection was disclosed.
Liberia is one of the three West African countries involved in the current Ebola outbreak, the largest since the virus was first identified in 1976. The current outbreak in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone has sickened more than 1,300 people and killed more than 700.
As U.S. health providers prepared for the arrival of Brantly and Writebol, international health officials warned that the outbreak in Africa was outstripping their ability to control it.
In Africa, Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), told leaders of the affected countries that the international group planned to release $100 million to fight the disease.
“This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” she said Friday at a meeting in the Guinean capital, Conakry. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”
In addition, the aid group Doctors Without Borders said Friday that the virus was raging “out of control” in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but it has deployed 550 health workers to Africa and doesn’t have the ability to send more help.
“The situation in Liberia is dire and there is almost no capacity on the ground to respond,” spokeswoman Sandra Murillo said.
There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Ebola, which causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea and massive internal bleeding and has a fatality rate of 60 to 90 percent. It is spread through direct contact with the blood, organs or other secretions of infected people.
As alarm about the outbreak grew, so, too, have concerns that the disease will be carried farther afield by travelers from the stricken countries, despite official efforts to tamp down such fears. The African Union, for instance, said Friday that it was postponing a routine rotation of its peacekeeping force in Somalia for fear that new soldiers arriving from Sierra Leone could be infected.
The Philippines said travelers from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia would be screened when they arrived and monitored for a month. Lebanon was reported to have suspended work permits for residents of the same three countries, news reports said. Emirates, based in Dubai, said it was suspending flights to Conakry as of Saturday.
At Emory, meanwhile, which opened its two-bed isolation unit 12 years ago, doctors said they were ready for the patients’ arrival.
There is no specific treatment for disease, although Writebol has received an experimental treatment, according to the mission groups.
“If there’s any modern therapy that can be done,” such as better monitoring of fluids, electrolytes and vital signs, workers will be able to do it better in this safe environment, said Dr. Philip Brachman, an Emory University public-health specialist who for many years headed the CDC’s disease-detectives program.
Ribner, one of the doctors who will be treating Brantly and Writebol, stressed that safety precautions will be taken by staff in the unit. “I have no concerns about even my personal health or the health of the other health-care workers who will be working in that area,” Ribner said.
The unit has its own laboratory equipment so samples don’t have to be sent to the main hospital lab.
Health experts say a specialized isolation unit is not even necessary for treating an Ebola patient. The virus does not spread through the air, so standard, rigorous infection-control measures should work.
Despite such reassurances, passers-by at Emory University Hospital said they were uncomfortable with the idea of Ebola patients being treated in their hometown.
“What? No, that worries me,” Lisa Jackson said while sitting at a nearby bus stop. “Why are they bringing them here? They shouldn’t even let them across the border,” she said, shaking her head.
Greg Hammock disagreed but admitted he worried about the possibility of the virus spreading. “All I know is Emory better be on top of their game,” he said. “If this is the only place they can get help, then sure they should bring them here.”
Material from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times is included in this report.