Ebola patients pose no threat, officials say

Some express concerns over the potential for the virus to spread in the U.S. despite an abundance of caution

Aug. 02--The two Ebola virus patients coming to Emory University Hospital from Liberia -- one is expected to arrive Saturday -- pose no threat to the general public, federal health officials and infectious disease experts said Friday.

Even so, plans to treat the gravely ill American aid workers in Atlanta sparked concerns, and in some cases outrage, among many metro-area residents. Experts say people shouldn't be concerned because Ebola is not transmitted through the air, as with other viruses like flu.

"Ebola, because it's an exotic disease and something that's rare -- certainly unknown here in the United States -- it can be frightening," said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It would take close personal contact of an exchange of body fluids for someone to become infected with Ebola."

Officials also said that evacuating Dr. Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol to a U.S. facility is their best chance of survival.

The two remained in serious condition Friday, according to the North Carolina relief organization, Samaritan's Purse, Brantly works for. They were expected to arrive at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Cobb County. (Emory would not identify the two patients, citing privacy concerns.)

While there is no cure for Ebola, improving the patients' level of care may markedly improve their chances, said Dr. Bruce Ribner, the infectious disease specialist at Emory who will be treating them.

"The body has to be given a chance to live long enough to kill the virus," Ribner said.

Simply monitoring the patients' level of hydration accurately and watching for bleeding are part of that effort, he said. The survival rate for the current Ebola outbreak has been around 40 percent.

Brantly and Writebol contracted Ebola while working in Liberia -- one of three African nations stricken by the worst known outbreak of the disease. Identified in March, the virus has claimed 729 lives and shows no signs of abating, according to the World Health Organization. Another 1,323 confirmed or suspected cases have also been reported.

Leaders of the West African nations under siege by the virus were set to meet with WHO on Friday to discuss a $100 million plan to deploy hundreds more medical professionals to the ravaged region. Sierra Leone and Liberia have also announced emergency measures, including closing schools, conducting house-to-house searches for infected people and deploying the army and police.

'This is supposed to make us feel better?'

The impending arrival of the two American aid workers has raised worries among residents about how officials plan to prevent the disease from spreading and why the Ebola patients are being brought here in the first place.

They will be treated in a special isolation unit built by Emory in collaboration with the CDC. The unit, one of only four of its kind in the country, is located away from other patients. (The other units are in Nebraska, Montana and Maryland.)

That doesn't make Atlanta resident Mercy Wright feel any better, especially considering the recent safety lapses at the CDC in handling anthrax and a dangerous strain of flu.

"This is supposed to make us feel better?" Wright said. "The CDC, which already is mismanaging its supplies of dangerous diseases, is now entrusted with the most dangerous virus of them all?"

People have a right to be uncomfortable with the decision to bring the patients here, said Dr. Ford Vox, who works with brain injuries, not infectious diseases, but has ties to Emory.

"As a medical professional, I don't have confidence in any hospital -- even a unit run in collaboration with the CDC such as Emory's -- as having absolute safety," he said.

Dr. Ribner, CDC officials and other infectious disease experts say there is little risk to the public of bringing the Ebola patients to Atlanta.

In fact, there is nothing about Ebola that necessarily requires the use of such a specialized treatment unit like the one at Emory, said Reynolds, the CDC spokeswoman, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday.

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