The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that has claimed nearly 700 lives has now infected two Americans, including a missionary from North Carolina working to help the sick.
But a Greenville man in Liberia with a charity that brings clean water to the locals says he’s fine and isn’t worried about catching the disease.
Nancy Writebol, who is with Charlotte-based SIM, is now among the more than 1,200 who have been infected, according to the group.
A married mother of two, she was infected while caring for patients in Monrovia, Liberia, along with Dr. Kent Brantly, who was also serving on a team led by SIM and Samaritan’s Purse, the group reported.
Both have symptoms of the virus, but are stable and getting round-the-clock medical care.
“The next few days are critical in assessing the recovery of these Ebola crisis responders,” said Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA.
“SIM and Samaritan’s Purse invite people to pray for the full restoration of our two workers and for the stemming of the spread of this virus across Liberia and other nations of West Africa.”
Ebola is a virus transmitted to people from wild animals like fruit bats and is highly contagious in humans through direct contact with the body fluids of victims, according to the World Health Organization. It has a mortality rate of up to 90 percent.
Symptoms include sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and sometimes internal and external bleeding, WHO reports. There is no vaccine or cure, and patients are given only intense supportive care.
David Crockett, a retired Greenville businessman who is in Monrovia with an Upstate charity that brings safe drinking water to locals, told The Greenville News by phone that the spread of the disease prompted the government to close offices Wednesday to put as few people at risk as possible.
In addition, Crockett, director of Water of Life for West Africa, said residents are wearing surgical masks and gloves if they work in areas where they come into contact with people, such as food service, grocery stores and banking. People are also asked to wash their hands before entering office buildings, he said.
And Liberians, known for greeting one another with a warm handshake or hug, have suspended that practice, he said.
“Everyone’s talking about it. People are taking precautions to protect themselves, trying to limit personal contact, becoming aware and taking the safeguards,” he said. “But it’s not a panic.”
The current outbreak is in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, WHO reports. There are concerns that it could spread to neighboring countries and even fears that it could reach the United States through an infected traveler.
But Dr. Preston Church, associate professor of medicine, infectious disease specialist and expert in travel and tropical medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the chances of that happening are remote.
“I think there’s the possibility that we could see some cases in the U.S., but I don’t think the disease could get established here,” he told The Greenville News.
“It’s not like West Nile virus, where there’s a successful animal reservoir that keeps the disease endemic,” he said. “And medical practice in the U.S. is certainly different.”
For one thing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued alerts to health care providers to think about Ebola in patients with symptoms who have been in West Africa, he said. And patients diagnosed with the disease would be isolated while treated, he said.
Moreover, he said, it’s not a disease that can be contracted by casual contact such as shaking someone’s hand. Those infected are typically health care workers and family members providing care for patients and come into contact with their body fluids, he said.
“If you’re sick enough to be transmitting on an airplane, you have to be pretty obviously sick,” he said. “I doubt they would make it through customs.”
The incubation period for Ebola is two to 21 days, though there is no risk of transmission during the incubation period, according to WHO. That means someone could be infected but not symptomatic until they return to the U.S.
“So what do you tell people? You tell them that if they’ve been in the situation of being in West Africa and they develop any febrile illness within three weeks of return that it needs to be brought to the immediate attention of a physician,” Church said. “It’s more likely that it’s malaria. But you don’t just sit on these things and wait and see if they go away.”
Some people may get sick, he said, but the public health system has been alerted.
“With what we know about how this is transmitted, right now a problem for the average U.S. citizen is highly unlikely,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s zero, but it’s relatively small.”
WHO also says the risk is “extremely low, even if the visit included travel to the local areas from which primary cases have been reported,” because transmission requires direct contact with body fluids, which is unlikely for the average traveler.
Samaritan’s Purse and SIM have called for an international response to the outbreak, characterizing the situation in Liberia as critical. The groups said they are evacuating all non-essential personnel.
And the Peace Corps said Wednesday it is temporarily removing its 340 volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea because of the outbreak.
Meanwhile, though at least 129 people in Liberia have died of Ebola since the outbreak began in March, almost 100 people die every day because they have no clean water, Crockett said.
Based in Greer, Water of Life is a Christian ministry that employs or contracts with teams in Liberia, Sierra Leone and India to drill wells in areas where the locals are forced to drink contaminated water from streams or other surface water, said its founder, Roland Bergeron. They need the water to survive, but it makes them sick, killing many from simple diarrhea, he said.
“Dirty water kills more people in the world than all the major diseases combined,” he said. “If you ended up with diarrhea here, you get antibiotics and get over it. There, there is no medical delivery system. The people are poor. And a simple thing like diarrhea kills them.”
Bergeron said he started working in Africa in 2004 in places traumatized by years of civil war that destroyed the infrastructure. Last year, the group drilled 160 wells in all three countries serving more than 140,000 people. This year, he said, they are on track to drill 200 wells for about 250,000 people.
“We go where the need is the greatest,” he said, “working among the forgotten people.”
Bergeron was supposed to be in Liberia himself this week with three other volunteers doing medical clinics as well as drilling wells, but the trip was canceled because of the outbreak. Instead, he’ll go at the end of August.
“The other three members on the trip heard about the Ebola crisis and felt it was too risky to be going over there,” he said. “And it was going to be a medical clinic. A lot of the time, people who sign up for our trips are nurses or doctors. Probably more than half our trips are village medical clinics.”
Those most at risk of contracting the virus are health care workers and family members caring for the sick.
So far, he said, Crockett, who is scheduled to return to Greenville on Saturday, is fine, as are the Liberians who work for the charity.
“As long as he’s not going into the hospital and dealing with the sick people there, or a local person’s home where someone’s sick, he should be safe,” Bergeron said.
“Almost everyone who has it in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea can trace back to catching it from a family member or health care worker.”
Crockett, a father of two and grandfather of three who owned a company in Greenville that trained engineers, electricians and mechanics called Centec Inc., also was in Sierra Leone last month and said he isn’t worried about catching the disease.
“There is a fear, sure. There is also a huge need,” he said. “We are drilling wells today. We still have a mission.”
Sometimes that mission takes them to small villages, where the disease could be lurking, he said. But they steer clear of the sick and take steps to protect themselves.
“It’s not that I don’t take it seriously. It’s a deadly disease. But we are not coming into contact with anyone who has it,” he said. “As long as we take precautions, we will continue to do what we do. There is a great need here.”