An American physician who was exposed to the Ebola virus while volunteering in Sierra Leone was admitted into the National Institutes of Health clinical center in Bethesda Sunday afternoon, just two days before a Texas patient tested positive for the virus and became the first diagnosed case of Ebola in America.
Meanwhile, the NIH, the University of Maryland, the United States and Israel are working to halt what President Barack Obama has called “a humanitarian crisis” and a “top national security priority for the United States.”
The unnamed doctor was working in an Ebola treatment unit. He is being observed in the NIH’s special clinic studies unit “out of an abundance of caution,” according to the NIH. He has not tested positive for the virus but rather is being isolated and watched during the incubation period.
“NIH is taking every precaution to ensure the safety of our patients, NIH staff and the public. This situation presents minimal risk to any of them,” according to an NIH press release.
The Ebola virus is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who already is experiencing symptoms or through exposure to needles that have been contaminated. It cannot be transmitted through the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms include fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, lack of appetite and abnormal bleeding, according to the CDC. These symptoms appear anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure.
The NIH announced a month ago that its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) had begun human testing on a possible Ebola prevention vaccine. The “early-stage trial” deals with a vaccine that was co-developed by NIAID and GlaxoSmithKline and is designed to evaluate the experimental vaccine’s safety and ability to generate an immune system response in healthy adults, according to a press release from the NIH. The testing is taking place in the clinical center in Bethesda.
“There is an urgent need for a protective Ebola vaccine, and it is important to establish that a vaccine is safe and spurs the immune system to react in a way necessary to protect against infection,” said NIAID director Anthony S. Fauci. “The NIH is playing a key role in accelerating the development and testing of investigational Ebola vaccines.”
Fauci explained that for now, “we know the best way to prevent the spread of Ebola infection is through public health measures, including good infection control practices, isolation, contact tracing, quarantine and provision of personal protective equipment.”
However, he said, “a vaccine will ultimately be an important tool in the prevention effort.”
A team of doctors and researchers from around the world, including some at the University of Maryland, are working on a vaccine that could stop the deadly disease’s rapid spread.
In August, Dr. Myron Levine, a professor of medicine with a specialty in immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, received a call from the World Health Organization (WHO) asking for his assistance in developing a fast-acting vaccine to combat the outbreak. Since then, Levine and others from the University of Maryland have worked closely as part of a consortium, trying to move at what Levine described as “warp speed” to produce a vaccine.
While the testing in Bethesda is proceeding, Levine pointed out that testing in a controlled environment on healthy patients with no exposure to the disease is far from testing in West Africa.
The future plan, said Levine, is to get vaccine test samples to Mali, where Ebola has not appeared and start giving the drug to health-care workers first. Then, the consortium plans to work in Guinea.
In a speech two weeks ago, Obama said the United States is partnering with the United Nations and other countries to help Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal to respond to the outbreak, which has claimed the lives of at least 3,000 people.
The United States has committed $175 million so far and is sending 3,000 members of the armed forces to Liberia to establish a regional intermediate staging base to transport equipment, supplies and personnel. Additional treatment units in affected areas will be built, and the U. S. government will help recruit medical personnel there. Also, there will be an area set aside to train up to 500 health-care providers each week.
Israel also is playing a role. Two doctors volunteered in Cameroon, according to Itamar Grotto, director of public health services at the Ministry of Health in Israel. Grotto was in Bethesda last week to attend an NIH workshop on polio vaccines.
IsraAID, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization founded in 2001, is sending two teams of medical experts to Sierra Leone and Liberia, Grotto said. One team is assisting in the launching of a trauma treatment program dealing with the stress and fears that accompany an epidemic of this proportion.
The second team is speaking with residents about personal hygiene and ways to make sure they do not get Ebola, Grotto said.
Meanwhile, the American Jewish World Service is using its familiarity with the region of West Africa to help stop the spread of the deadly disease. AJWS is providing more than $100,000 to some of the groups it works with in Liberia so they can conduct person-to-person outreach as well as radio programming to teach people how to recognize symptoms of the virus and what steps to take when they come in contact with a carrier.
“They are human rights and anti-poverty groups that are community-based, so the people in those organizations know their own communities, and they are better equipped, I think, probably than anybody to step forward and do public-health outreach, public-health education, disease prevention,” said Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS.
Heather Norris, staff reporter for our sister publication Baltimore Jewish Times contributed to this article.