Three people are sick with Ebola virus in Nigeria’s oil hub, Port Harcourt, World Health Organization officials said Wednesday — a worrying sign of spread linked to a single traveler who tried to elude treatment.
Now the Nigerian outbreak may spread even faster than feared, WHO says. WHO’s already raised the Ebola death toll to 1,900 people and predicts the epidemic will get worse before it gets better. WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan says it will likely last nine months or longer.
Earlier Wednesday, the medical missionary group SIM USA confirmed that 51-year-old family physician Dr. Rick Sacra was the third American to become infected with Ebola in Liberia.
All the Nigerian cases can be traced back to Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American consultant who fled to Nigeria after he became sick, infecting several health care workers who treated him in the capital of Lagos before he died in July.
“One close contact of the Lagos case fled the city, where he was under quarantine, to seek treatment in Port Harcourt,” WHO reports in an update. That patient infected a doctor who treated him in Port Harcourt.
The doctor, who died last month, infected his wife and a patient at the same hospital where he was treated. And he may have infected others.
The case illustrates just how Ebola can spread when cases are not immediately diagnosed and isolated. “Prior to hospitalization, the physician had numerous contacts with the community, as relatives and friends who visited his home to celebrate the birth of a baby,” WHO said.
“Once hospitalized, he again had numerous contacts with the community, as members of his church visited to perform a healing ritual said to involve the laying on of hands. During his six-day period of hospitalization, he was attended by the majority of the hospital’s health care staff.”
They’re all at risk now and will have to be watched for 21 days to make sure they do not become infected.
“Given these multiple high-risk exposure opportunities, the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Port Harcourt has the potential to grow larger and spread faster than the one in Lagos,” WHO said.
There have been several incidents in Liberia, with some small-scale rioting, looting of clinics and other disruptions to an already stressed health system. WHO says it could get bad in Nigeria, too.
They’re trying to calm people. “Social mobilization efforts have been stepped up, initially targeting key community and religious leaders,” WHO said.
“However, civil unrest, security issues, and public fear of Ebola create serious problems that could hamper response operations. Military escorts are needed for movements into the isolation and treatment center.”
Last week, a student carried Ebola to Senegal after evading authorities trying to keep an eye on him. And earlier this week a man who escaped an Ebola quarantine center was captured by medical workers in special gear.