American health officials were scrambling on Friday to fetch two American patients infected with Ebola virus back from West Africa for treatment.
The State Department said it was helping organize the evacuations over the "coming days".
"The State Department, together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is facilitating a medical evacuation for two U.S. citizens who have been infected by Ebola in West Africa," spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
"The safety and security of U.S. citizens is our paramount concern. Every precaution is being taken to move the patients safely and securely, to provide critical care en route on a non-commercial aircraft, and to maintain strict isolation upon arrival in the United States."
CDC helps equip a small jet with containment equipment so a patient with any infectious disease can be transported while receiving medical care but without infecting caretakers.
"CDC protocols and equipment are used for these kinds of medical evacuations so that they are carried out safely, thereby protecting the patient and the American public, as has been done with similar medical evacuations in the past," Harf said.
Emory University Hospital said it was ready to take care of them at a special isolation unit that it operates in collaboration with the CDC.
Federal government officials said they wouldn't be releasing personal information, but Samaritan's Purse said a doctor and a hygienist who had been infected were coming home when they could be safely moved.
"Dr. Kent Brantly, a doctor working for Samaritan's Purse, and Nancy Writebol, a missionary with SIM (Serving in Mission), are currently in serious condition," the charity Samaritan's Purse said in a statement. "The two Americans who contracted Ebola in Liberia remain in the country today but medical evacuation efforts are underway and should be completed by early next week," it added.
Such evacuations have happened before — during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndome (SARS) in 2003 and in 2007, with a patient who had drug-resistant tuberculosis.
Any modern hospital with an isolation unit can handle a patient with Ebola virus, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden says. It doesn’t require special measures beyond very strict hygiene control and the use of protective clothing for health care workers.
“We are so heartened that Nancy is in stable condition and that plans are underway to bring her back to the U.S.,” said Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA. “We are grateful for the help and support of the U.S. State Department in this endeavor.”
SIM said Writebol's husband, David, was staying as close to her as he could. "With her condition, he can only visit his wife through a window or dressed in a haz-mat suit," the group said.
"Although nonessential SIM personnel are leaving the country, SIM is sending in another of its doctors to help with the treatment of Ebola patients at its ELWA treatment center in Monrovia. SIM currently has two doctors caring for Writebol and Brantly, and its Liberian staff is still engaged in the region. SIM ministries, including its radio station, school and HIV-AIDS public health education group, continue to operate."
Other charity workers who have not been infected are also moving out. "Evacuation of 60 nonessential Samaritan’s Purse and SIM staff and dependents in Liberia has already begun," the group said. "They are all healthy, and we expect them to return to the United States by the end of the weekend."
In addition, the State Department said two Peace Corps workers were under observation because they may have been exposed to the virus, but did not say who or where they were, or whether either had actually become infected. The Peace Corps was also removing volunteers in the region.
The outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa threatens "catastrophic consequences" if it is not controlled soon, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, told African leaders earlier Friday. But she said it is possible to control the infection. The outbreak’s infected more than 1,300 people and killed more than 700 of them.
The problem in West Africa is a lack of the kind of facilities found in the U.S., along with a poor understanding of the disease and how to prevent its spread.
“This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” Chan told the leaders of the three affected countries — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — as well as neighboring Ivory Coast, in a speech.
“If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”
Healthcare workers are at great risk — more than 60 have died already, including doctors and nurses. WHO is holding a meeting next week to decide whether the situation has become a public health emergency, and it announced a $100 million effort to help the three countries manage the spread.
“Second, the situation in West Africa is of international concern and must receive urgent priority for decisive action at national and international levels,” Chan said. “Experiences in Africa over nearly four decades tell us clearly that, when well-managed, an Ebola outbreak can be stopped.”
Ebola is not especially transmissible, even if it is frightening and hard to treat.
“This is not an airborne virus. Transmission requires close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, also after death,” Chan noted. “Apart from this specific situation, the general public is not at high risk of infection by the Ebola virus.”
The virus is not spreading so much because it is terribly contagious, but because it’s never been seen in West Africa before and the average person does not understand how or why it spreads—and may not trust strange health care workers.
That means Ebola is not just a medical problem, Chan said. “It is a social problem. Deep-seated beliefs and cultural practices are a significant cause of further spread and a significant barrier to rapid and effective containment. This social dimension must also be addressed as an integral part of the overall response.”
The CDC said 50 experts will be heading over in the next month to provide guidance on how to set up command centers than can help coordinate containment efforts.
The main group with doctors on the ground is Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders). "The organization has reached the limits of what it can do. MSF’s top priority is to provide care for patients infected with the virus, and the organization has deployed as many people as possible to do so," the group said in a statement.
"The growing number of affected areas makes it difficult to care for patients and implement all the actions necessary to control the epidemic. MSF is expanding its case management center in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, from 64 to 88 beds, yet MSF teams in Sierra Leone are overwhelmed with new Ebola patients," it added.
"The situation in Liberia is dire and there is almost no capacity on the ground to respond."