Two infected Americans, a dead Liberian doctor, and the worst-ever Ebola outbreak

A U.S. aid worker infected with Ebola while working in West Africa will be treated in a high security ward at Emory University in Atlanta. (Reuters)

All weekend, the Ebola news kept getting worse. It began on Saturday, when Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, confirmed that it was the latest country to confirm a death by Ebola. He was Liberian, and he had died after landing in Lagos airport on Tuesday.

Then came the news that a Sierra Leone woman, the first woman to have contracted the disease in the national capital of Freetown, who had escaped medical care after she was diagnosed, had died.

Next it was announced that one of Liberia’s most high-profile doctors, who had spearheaded national efforts against the disease, had also died after three weeks fighting the virus.

Also this weekend: Two Americans have been infected with Ebola in an outbreak that has killed more than 670 across several West African nations and frustrated and confounded both aid workers and national agencies.

One of the Americans is aid worker Nancy Writebol of Charlotte who was working with the Christian Serving in Mission in Monrovia, Liberia, when she got sick — though according to the Charlotte Observer, she didn’t have contact with patients. “They did not take chances, I assure you,” Samaritan’s Purse spokeswoman Melissa Strickland told the Observer. “We are investigating how that contact could have occurred. Of course it’s a highly contagious disease. … It’s a risk, unfortunately.”

The other infected American is 33-year-old Kent Brantly of Fort Worth, Tex. He’s the medical director for Samaritan’s Purse Ebola case management center in Monrovia, which has teamed with Writebol’s group. Days after he sent his wife and two kids home to the United States, he started noticing the symptoms. He has since isolated himself, and the Charlotte Observer reports he is working now, chatting with doctors and working on his computer at an isolation unit.

The situation “is getting more and more scary,” an assistant health minister named Tolbert Nyenswah told the Associated Press.

According to Writebol’s Facebook profile, she arrived in Liberia in August of 2013. “Thanking God for His grace in travel!!!” she wrote. “We arrived in Liberia last night, on time, with all eight of our bags — plus carry on. … We are excited to watch God at work in Liberia!”

Soon, however, something else would get to work in Liberia, and in late March the first cases of Ebola appeared. By March 27, according to the World Health Organization, there were at least eight suspected cases and six deaths in residents who had traveled from Guinea, believed to be the outbreak’s country of origin.

Within days, Writebol took notice of the emerging crisis, her Facebook page shows. “Please continue to pray for Liberia,” she wrote, sharing a page that listed her humanitarian group’s preparations. Days later, she again urged prayer for Liberia and shared images that her humanitarian group had uploaded. One showed a makeshift “isolation unit” her husband, David, had helped construct in a local chapel. “Stay Away!” a sign read outside. “ISOLATION UNIT: Authorized personnel only!

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Meanwhile, the disease continued its deadly progression through the West African population, hopping borders and killing at least 672 people in 1,201 cases, according to the World Health Organization’s latest batch of numbers. In Liberia, where Writebol worked, the disease killed 129 in 249 cases.

On Sunday, the humanitarian group announced the news. Writebol, who has two kids and tested positive on Friday, had contracted Ebola. “Nancy tested positive for the Ebola virus and is undergoing treatment at the isolation center at ELWA.”

“It’s just devastating news,” John Munro, Writebol’s senior pastor, told the Charlotte Observer. “On Tuesday, she’d been very unwell. Initially, they thought it might be malaria.”

Her husband has since informed their Charlotte church congregation. “He’s devastated,” the pastor explained to the Charlotte Observer. “He can’t really be with his wife. She’s in isolation. Ebola is very contagious. … She’s not doing well. It’s grim news.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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