A missionary from Charlotte and a Texas doctor working for Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse are among the first Americans who have been infected with the deadly Ebola virus while working to combat the outbreak in Liberia.
Nancy Writebol, a member of Charlotte’s Calvary Church and a missionary working in West Africa, learned Friday she tested positive for the virus. She has been isolated and is receiving care, according to Samaritan’s Purse spokeswoman Melissa Strickland.
Writebol, whose husband, David, is also a missionary in Liberia, was working as a hygienist, spraying protective suits worn by health care workers treating Ebola patients.
“It’s just devastating news,” said the Rev. John Munro, Calvary’s senior pastor. “On Tuesday, she’d been very unwell. Initially, they thought it might be malaria.”
But David Writebol spoke with members of the congregation by Skype on Friday night to deliver the news.
“He’s devastated,” Munro said. “He can’t really be with his wife. She’s in isolation. Ebola is very contagious. She’s not doing well. It’s grim news.”
Munro described the Writebols as “unassuming people, very strong in their faith in Christ. Genuinely humble. About two or three months ago, we were concerned about them and offered to pay for them to come home. But they said no. They believe the Lord sent them there.”
Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, of Fort Worth and medical director for the Samaritan’s Purse Ebola case management center in Monrovia, is also receiving intensive medical treatment at the Eternal Love Winning Africa hospital, which is managed by Service in Mission, or SIM. The Samaritan’s Purse website said Brantly is in stable condition, talking with his doctors and working on his computer while receiving care.
His wife and two children had left Liberia for the United States several days before he began showing symptoms, and the other family members have not shown signs of the disease. “Ebola is not contagious unless you are symptomatic,” Strickland said.
Writebol didn’t have direct contact with patients, and she and Brantly both followed protection protocols, Strickland said. “They did not take chances, I assure you. We are investigating how that contact could have occurred. Of course it’s a highly contagious disease. It’s a risk, unfortunately. But we have every confidence they were following protocols strictly and rigorously.”
Dr. Samuel Brisbane is the first Liberian doctor to die in an outbreak the World Health Organization says has killed 129 people in Liberia, and more than 670 in several West African countries. A Ugandan doctor working in the country died earlier this month.
Largest outbreak ever
The WHO says the outbreak, the largest ever recorded, has also killed 319 people in Guinea and 224 in Sierra Leone. As of July 23, the total number of cases in the three countries was 1,201, it said.
There is no known cure for the virus, which causes raging fever, vomiting, diarrhea and uncontrolled bleeding. Strickland, with Samaritan’s Purse, said only 40 percent of those who contract the disease survive it. But she added that the chance of survival increases if it is caught early and patients receive supportive care, such as IV fluids and pain medicines.
“All we can do is provide them the best supportive medical care to give their body the best chance against the virus,” she said.
As for Writebol and Brantly, she said, “There are no guarantees, and they are by no means out of the woods. But catching it early, isolating them and providing them the kind of medical care they are receiving does help their chances.”
Writebol and her husband are employed by SIM and have been working in Monrovia since last August. Calvary’s minister, Munro, said a small group from the congregation had visited the Writebols in Liberia last September “just to encourage them.” Another group was planning to return this September, that but has “obviously been canceled,” he said.
The SIM website said the Writebols “sensed God’s calling to them to enter missions early in their marriage. The timing for their call would not be until they raised their two sons and left successful careers in the software industry and education.” They joined SIM in 2013 after 14 years of service to orphans and other vulnerable children in Ecuador and Zambia.
The website says David Writebol is the ELWA services manager, responsible for managing electricity, water, and sanitation services for the 130-acre campus. Nancy Writebol has served as personnel coordinator.
Serious risk for workers
Earlier this year, Brantly, the doctor from Texas, was quoted in a posting about the dangers facing health workers trying to contain the disease. “In past Ebola outbreaks, many of the casualties have been health care workers who contracted the disease through their work caring for infected individuals,” he said.
In Nigeria, officials announced on Friday that a Liberian official died of Ebola after flying from Monrovia to Lagos via Lome, Togo. The case underscored the difficulty of preventing Ebola victims from traveling given weak screening systems and the fact that the initial symptoms of the disease – including fever and sore throat – resemble many other illnesses.
Health workers are at serious risk of contracting the disease, which spreads through contact with bodily fluids.
Sierra Leone’s top Ebola doctor also fell ill with the disease last week, though Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brima Kargbo said Sunday that he was “fairly stable and responding well to treatment.”
Health workers say they are now battling two enemies: the unprecedented Ebola epidemic, and fear, which has produced growing hostility toward outside help.
Workers and officials, blamed by panicked populations for spreading the virus, have been threatened with knives, stones and machetes, their vehicles sometimes surrounded by hostile mobs. Log barriers across narrow dirt roads block medical teams from reaching villages where the virus is suspected. Sick and dead villagers, cut off from help, are infecting others.
“This is very unusual, that we are not trusted,” said Marc Poncin, the emergency coordinator in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders, the main group fighting the disease in Guinea. “We’re not stopping the epidemic.”
Efforts to monitor it are grinding to a halt because of “intimidation,” he said. People appear to have more confidence in witch doctors. The New York Times and Associated Press writers Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Heather Murdock in Lagos, Nigeria contributed reporting.