In the next few days, two American missionary healthcare workers infected with the Ebola virus will be transported to Atlanta to be treated at Emory University Hospital. In a live-streamed press conference this afternoon, Dr. Bruce Ribner, an Emory Healthcare infectious disease specialist, said that, to his knowledge this is the first time that patients with Ebola will be treated in the United States.
Ribner did not name the patients, nor has the State Department, but CNN reported that they are Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, healthcare workers with the mission organization Samaritan’s Purse.
Obviously this is a fast moving and rapidly evolving story—during the press conference Ribner delivered an update that Emory would be taking two patients, not one as had been earlier reported. He’d just learned of that development a half hour before.
Since the news broke last night about Ebola treatment in Atlanta, most opinion expressed in newspaper commenting sections and on Twitter has been panic-laced at best and xenophobically hateful at worst.
As Ribner pointed out, this alarm is not warranted. While Ebola may have high mortality rates—60 to 80 percent is the range commonly cited–patients have been treated in places with limited healthcare facilities. Ebola, he noted, spreads similarly to HIV or Hepatitis C, or through direct contact with bodily fluids. “Ebola is not spread by some magic mechanism,” he said. “It’s the same algorithm for transmission, and requires the same kind of precautions.”
Staff at Emory University Hospital—which has one of the four specially equipped isolation facilities in the U.S.—train for, and are accustomed to dealing with potentially dangerous diseases. “The bottom line is, we have an inordinate amount of safety associated with treatment,” said Ribner. “Our nursing personnel are very used to caring for critically ill patients who need safety precautions.”
Experts at Emory and CDC are already working on plans to safely transport the patients, who will be coming to Dobbins Air Force Base via air ambulance, to the quarantine unit at Emory.
The quarantined treatment facility at Emory has been operational for 12 years, and has been used to treat SARS and other rare diseases, said Ribner. It’s also been used as a precautionary tool, when a patient has been a risk of having a rare or potentially dangerous disease.
I can attest to the value of the unit from personal experience. Four years ago, my father, also a missionary, became gravely ill. He had an extremely high fever and chills, and his blood pressure plummeted to near fatal levels. He was rushed to the Emory ER and ended up in a special treatment unit. Because he’d returned to Atlanta after traveling in Ghana and Sierra Leone, and there was fear that he might have a serious infection such as Marburg virus or an antibiotic resistant, or MRSA, bacterial infection, he was isolated and assessed by experts from Emory and the CDC. As my mother recalls, experts in biohazard suits evaluated him, as he was given life-saving treatment, including intravenous antibiotics.
The scarier diseases were ruled out, and the doctors concluded that it was mostly likely cellulitis, or a bacterial skin infection. “The infection cleared, and hasn’t returned,” wrote my father, whom I contacted via email today because he’s traveling overseas. “I was happy with the treatment.”(My dad, it should be noted, is not given to effusive statements.) What I know, is that he likely owes his life to a medical team that treated him with immediacy—and with great caution—while fully aware that he might have a threatening condition.
“We owe them the right to receive the best medical care,” said Ribner when asked about treating the incoming patients. That is a spirit my family certainly appreciates.