Ebola Infects Third U.S. Aid Worker, a Doctor in Liberia

A third U.S. missionary working in Liberia has tested positive for Ebola as health leaders from the U.S. and United Nations said the pace of infections is increasing across West Africa.

Rick Sacra, 51, a doctor delivering babies in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, was infected with the virus, the missionary group SIM USA said today. Sacra had traveled between the U.S. and West Africa and 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 all previous outbreaks combined, according to the World Health Organization. The number of cases may exceed 20,000 before the epidemic is controlled, the WHO said last week.

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.

“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,” Bruce Johnson, SIM USA president, said in the statement.

Isolated Quickly

Johnson said in an interview he received an e-mail from Sacra the morning of Sept. 1 letting him know the doctor suspected he contracted the virus and had isolated himself. Johnson learned of the Ebola diagnosis the afternoon of Sept. 1. 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.

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.

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.

Many Supporters

Writebol, speaking of her illness today 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 Mapp to provide $24.9 million to support the development and manufacturing of the medication, known as ZMapp.

U.S. Backing

This is the agency’s first involvement in the development of a product to treat viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever, according to the statement by the group, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A study of ZMapp published in the journal Nature Aug. 29 showed monkeys infected with Ebola survived after being treated with the drug. All 18 monkeys given the medicine lived, while three that weren’t treated died.

Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and David Nabarro, the UN coordinator for Ebola, said in separate appearances yesterday that the outbreak is getting worse.

“The bottom line is that despite tremendous efforts from the U.S. government, the CDC, from within countries, the number of cases continues to increase and is increasing rapidly,” Frieden, who just returned from a trip to West Africa, said in a conference call with reporters. “I’m afraid that over the next few weeks those numbers will continue to increase.”

“The outbreak, it is accelerating before us,” Nabarro told reporters in New York. “It is truly important that our response is much stronger. We must do a surge or scaling up of the response, several times, and for that I want to emphasize the importance of accelerating the response within the next two to three weeks.”

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