Liberian families in Western Pa. fret over Ebola virus outbreak
Fear about a worsening outbreak of Ebola stretched to Pittsburgh on Friday as Liberian immigrants said relatives are scrambling to get care in stricken countries and a North Side church prayed for the safe return of two members doing missionary work in West Africa.
“Every day somebody is dying. We are very worried because our families don’t have the means to get medical support,” said George Toto, 35, a Liberian immigrant in Whitehall.
Toto leads the United Liberian Community of Greater Pittsburgh, which wants to send money and medical supplies to the capital city of Monrovia. One of Toto’s cousins, a man in his 20s, died from Ebola last week because he was afraid to go to a hospital, Toto said.
International health authorities called the outbreak the worst in history but said it is unlikely to enter the United States. The disease has killed more than 700 people since February and prompted worldwide travel advisories. Officials cautioned people to avoid nonessential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the outbreak’s epicenter.
Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, said more than 60 health care workers have lost their lives in helping treat Ebola patients.
Dr. Andrew Hall and his wife, Lindsay, of Hampton are among American volunteers in Guinea, where laboratory testing confirmed at least 311 cases of Ebola. The Halls have spent three months in the country. Officials at Allegheny Center Alliance Church in the North Side, which is sponsoring their work, received an email from the couple on Friday.
“We have not seen any cases of Ebola at Hope Medical Center, though reports are that it is near us across the border in Liberia as well as north toward Conakry,” the couple wrote.
The couple said they changed travel plans because of the outbreak and expect to fly out on Tuesday after a two-day drive through the jungle to the capital of Guinea.
“Please pray that Air France maintains their flights for the removal of nonessential personnel. Please pray for safe travel on Sunday and Monday,” the email read.
Blaine Workman, administrative pastor of the church, commended the Halls for their commitment. Two other church members last week traveled to Gabon in West Africa, where there have been no reported cases of Ebola.
“It is very commendable what they are doing,” Workman said about the Halls. “I know they believe that God is going to use them in very specific and special ways over there.”
The Halls first went to Guinea in 2007. They stayed for less than two years until political upheaval forced them to leave, Lindsay Hall said in a recent video the church produced.
The Tribune-Review could not reach the couple by email.
In the video, Hall said her husband would work as a physician and she would stay home with their children.
“It’s a great environment for being able to share the love that Jesus has instilled in our hearts for other people,” she said.
The probability of anyone bringing the virus to the United States is fairly low, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at UPMC. The virus leads to symptoms that are easy to spot, such as fever, headaches, intense weakness and vomiting. People with those symptoms who are traveling from stricken countries likely will be screened by infectious disease experts at airports in Africa.
“Ebola isn’t like the common cold or measles. It’s somehow hard to get. You only get it from exposure to blood and bodily fluids,” Adalja said.
At least two humanitarian workers infected in Africa will be treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, raising the possibility that other U.S. hospitals would treat victims. At Emory, doctors will treat patients in an isolation unit set up with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The two Americans, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, worked for U.S. missionary groups. They will be transported in a Gulfstream jet fitted with what essentially is a specialized, collapsible clear tent designed to house a single patient and stop any infectious germs from escaping.
Brantly and Writebol were in serious condition and still in Liberia on Friday, according to the North Carolina-based charity Samaritan’s Purse, which is paying for their transfer and medical care.
UPMC on Friday updated its treatment guidelines for patients who might have Ebola. Though doctors have recorded no cases of the disease in the United States, UPMC wants to equip its medical staff for the risk of infected travelers, Adalja said.
“Any clinician can look at that (guidance) 24/7 and rest assured we’ve been keeping abreast of it,” he said.
The standards largely mirror CDC advice to isolate probable Ebola patients.
Experts suggest doctors wear eye and mask protection and limit contamination of hospital equipment. No cure or other treatment exists for the disease, leaving doctors with few options but to try to make patients comfortable.
Toto, who came to Western Pennsylvania in 2002 as a refugee, said he speaks frequently with his mother in Liberia. She told him health workers, including nurses, have left their jobs for fear of contracting the virus. When people show up at some clinics, no one is there to care for them, he said.
“The current situation is very alarming,” he said.
Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media’s medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or [email protected]. Staff writer Adam Smeltz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.