WASHINGTON – A 51-year-old doctor became the third U.S. missionary infected with Ebola as the death toll from the disease in West Africa exceeded all previous outbreaks combined.
The doctor, Rick Sacra, was delivering babies in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, and had traveled between the U.S. and West Africa, the Christian missionary group SIM USA said Wednesday. Sacra was establishing a residency program for family medicine at SIM’s hospital in Liberia, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based group said in a statement.
The Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria has sickened more than 3,500 people, killing 1,900, more than the 1,590 deaths from the disease over the last 40 years, according to the World Health Organization. The number of cases may exceed 20,000 before the epidemic is controlled, a process that may take six months to nine months, the WHO said.
Sacra, who lives in the Boston area with his family, volunteered to return to Liberia after two other missionary aid workers were infected with the virus, SIM USA said. While the group said it’s sending another doctor to care for Sacra, SIM USA didn’t say whether he would return to the U.S. for treatment.
Nancy Writebol, an aid worker with SIM, was one of two Americans who were flown to Atlanta, treated and released last month after being similarly infected in Liberia. The other was Kent Brantly, a missionary doctor with Samaritan’s Purse, another North Carolina-based aid organization.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has been contacted to provide an isolation system used to move infected patients by air as in the cases of Writebol and Brantly, Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokeswoman, said in an email.
Writebol and Brantly received an experimental treatment developed by San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. before being moved to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. There they received standard care that includes hydration, replacing lost blood and using antibiotics to fight opportunistic infections, doctors said.
Writebol, speaking of her illness Wednesday for the first time, said she assumed initially that she had malaria before an Ebola diagnosis was confirmed a few days later. She attributed her recovery to an experimental drug that was also given to Brantly, along with the medical staff and her faith.
“I want to say first, to God be the glory, because he is the one who gives us life and numbers our days,” Writebol said in a statement released by SIM USA. “But God uses doctors, and God uses experimental drugs. We don’t know whether the drug helped or worked. We don’t know whether it was the supportive care, but I’m telling you it was very, very necessary.”
While Mapp has since said its supply of the drug is exhausted, the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority said it will contract with the company to provide $24.9 million to support the development and manufacturing of the medication, known as ZMapp.
Research into other potential treatments and prevention efforts have accelerated. NewLink Genetics Corp. said Thursday it received permission from the Food and Drug Administration to begin the first trials of its experimental Ebola vaccine in humans. About 40 healthy adults will be given the shot to determine the safety of the vaccine initially developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada, NewLink, based in Ames, Iowa, said in a statement.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health also began this week an early-stage trial on a vaccine it developed with London-based GlaxoSmithKline Plc.
Johnson & Johnson said Thursday it will speed development of a new combination vaccine regimen against Ebola. Working with partner Bavarian Nordic A/S and the U.S. NIH, the company plans to start human testing early next year.
Bruce Johnson, SIM USA president, said in an interview that he received an email from Sacra on Mondy morning letting him know the doctor suspected he contracted the virus and had isolated himself. Johnson learned of the Ebola diagnosis that afternoon. Sacra hasn’t felt any symptoms other than fever though he remains in isolation in a 50-bed unit established at the SIM hospital in Monrovia about three months ago, Johnson said.
“While this news was disheartening for the sake of Rick, his wife and family, it does not dampen our resolve and commitment in SIM to serve the people of Liberia and attack this Ebola epidemic,” Johnson said in a statement.
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