An American health worker who has been caring for patients infected with Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was flown back to the United States after having what is described as “a possible exposure” to an Ebola patient.
The person was flown by charter flight to Omaha and admitted for observation to Nebraska Medical Center. The center has a special containment unit in which it can care for people with dangerous infectious diseases.
The person isn’t displaying symptoms of Ebola, the center said in a statement. But the medical evacuation ensures quick access to specialized care if symptoms develop.
“This person may have been exposed to the virus but is not ill and is not contagious,” Dr. Ted Cieslak, an infectious diseases specialist, said in the statement from Nebraska Medicine.
The hospital has access to experimental Ebola therapies that it could use to treat the person if he or she becomes ill, spokesman Taylor Wilson told STAT.
The health worker’s identity has not been disclosed — though Politico reported he is a 39-year-old male doctor — nor has information been released about how he or she was possibly exposed to the deadly virus, and when.
The incubation period for Ebola is two to 21 days, with most people who develop the disease showing symptoms within eight to 10 days. The statement from Nebraska Medical said monitoring could last up to two weeks, which suggests several days may have passed since the exposure event.
The individual was vaccinated with an experimental vaccine the day after the exposure event, a person familiar with the situation, who was not authorized to speak about it and requested anonymity, confirmed to STAT. The vaccine, being developed by Merck, is being used to combat the outbreak.
So far in this outbreak, 54 health workers have been infected with Ebola and 18 have died, according to the World Health Organization.
The statement said the individual had asked for privacy and the request would be honored.
The individual is likely someone working with one of the medical charities caring for Ebola patients in the outbreak zone. U.S. government employees have been barred from working on the ground in this outbreak, because of security concerns. Consequently, no one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the United States Agency for International Development — USAID — have been working in the outbreak zone in northeastern Congo since late August.
That part of the Congo has been experiencing high levels of unrest and violence that have hampered the Ebola containment efforts for months.
But the violence reached a new level this week after it was announced that the area would not take part in national elections being held Sunday. Voting in the region has been postponed until March, which means the voters will not have a voice in the election of the country’s next president. The outcome of the presidential election will be declared in mid-January.
Last week, the resulting anger was directed at the Ebola response efforts. A mob attacked a facility at Beni built to house people who were waiting for the results of Ebola tests. Since then, a number of non-governmental organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, have moved some international staff from the area.
The outbreak, which is believed to have begun in late April, is the second largest on record. To date, there have been nearly 600 confirmed and probable cases reported and nearly 360 deaths, and there are fears the current violence could drive up those numbers sharply.
Nebraska Medical Center looked after three patients with Ebola who were brought back to the United States for care during the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 and 2015. Two of the three recovered, but one, who had been ill for more than a week before he was evacuated from Sierra Leone, died two days after arriving in Nebraska.
This story has been updated.