An American doctor who was infected with Ebola while treating maternity patients in Liberia is being flown back to the USA for treatment at a specialized facility in Nebraska.
Richard Sacra, who worked for the missionary group SIM USA, is expected to arrive in Omaha on Friday and begin treatment in Nebraska Medical Center's biocontainment patient care unit, one of only four facilities in the country designed specifically to treat patients exposed to extremely dangerous infectious organisms.
There is very little public health risk to bringing an Ebola patient to the USA, said Katherine Luzuriaga, associate provost for global health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who has worked in Liberia helping to rebuild its health care system.
That's because the Omaha facility was designed to handle patients with dangerous infectious diseases and its staff has been specially trained, she said. Even at a specialized facility, however, doctors can offer Sacra only "supportive care" to treat and prevent complications of Ebola such as dehydration, Luzuriaga said. There are no approved drugs to treat Ebola.
There are no more doses left of an experimental drug called ZMapp, which was given to seven other Ebola patients, including American doctor Kent Brantly, who worked for Samaritan's Purse, and missionary Nancy Writebol, who worked for SIM USA. Both survived after receiving the drug and being flown back to the USA for supportive care. Two Liberians and a British man also survived after getting ZMapp. A Liberian doctor and Spanish priest died, however, in spite of getting the drug.
Zmapp, still in the early stages of development, takes months to make, and health officials don't expect any more to be available until next year.
Sacra's wife, Debbie, said her husband was able to walk onto the plane taking him back to the USA. She said his concern for Liberian patients motivated him to return to Liberia.
"When he left in the beginning of August, we knew there was a risk that he could become sick," Debbie Sacra said. "But he was so concerned about the children who were going to die of malaria without hospitalization, and the women who had no place to go to deliver their babies by cesarean section."
Debbie Sacra said her husband was strengthened by faith.
"He would not be afraid to pass into eternal life with the Lord," she said. "The same love that Christ showed when he reached out to heal and comfort is the same love that Rick showed."
Richard Sacra, 51, is a veteran of medical missions but wasn't treating Ebola patients. SIM USA's president, Bruce Johnson, said he doesn't know how Sacra was infected.
Although the Liberian hospital checks patients for symptoms of Ebola before admitting them, "a strong possibility is that the Ebola symptoms were masked and not presenting themselves with a patient who was admitted and cared for," Johnson said.
Another doctor with SIM USA is traveling to West Africa to replace Sacra and run the hospital.
When not in Africa, Sacra is an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and is a member of the medical staff at Family Health Center of Worcester. Sacra has been a medical missionary in Liberia in West Africa since 1995.He was the acting medical director at the Liberian hospital from 2008 to 2010.
Sacra returned to Liberia in August to relieve aid workers fighting Ebola. He volunteered after hearing that Ebola had struck Writebol and Brantly, who was working with the missionary group Samaritan's Purse. "Our other two doctors had been pulling very long hours, under extremely fatiguing conditions, and they needed a break," Johnson said Wednesday.
Ebola patients in Liberia are treated in a special isolation unit, a separate facility from the rest of the hospital where Sacra worked.
According to SIM USA, "Sacra has saved the lives of several women and infants in the past three weeks who would have otherwise died from complications of pregnancy and labor." Sacra had been working to create a residency program for family medicine in Liberia to help the country rebuild its infrastructure and train professionals after years of war.
According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 3,700 cases of Ebola and 1,841 deaths in the five countries affected: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal. The WHO has said that it will take at least $600 million to combat Ebola, which may infect as many as 20,000 people over the next six to nine months.The U.S. Agency for International Development announced it would provide $75 million in aid to help West African countries fight Ebola, in addition to the $20 million it has already committed.
At a press conference Wednesday, Writebol said her job in Liberia was to help doctors and nurses entering and leaving the Ebola unit, dressing them before they went in and helping to decontaminate them when they left.
Writebol said she doesn't know whether the experimental drug saved her life, or if she was saved simply because she got good supportive care -- treating her symptoms and preventing complications -- at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
"God uses doctors, and God uses experimental drugs," Writebol said. "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. And we are seeing wonderful results just from supportive care in West Africa."
Contributing: Associated Press