The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday he has activated the agency's emergency operation center at the highest response level to help respond to the worst Ebola outbreak in history, which has killed 932 people.
In testimony at a special congressional hearing on Ebola, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said the centers have more than 200 staff members in Atlanta working on the outbreak, and will soon have more than 50 disease experts in West Africa to try to contain the outbreak.
Although Frieden said it is possible that people who have traveled to West Africa might bring the virus back home with them, and even spread it to some healthcare workers and family members, he said, he is "confident there will not be a large Ebola outbreak in the United States."
The scale of the outbreak is unprecedented, both in terms of its organic spread and travel of those being treated for Ebola. Confirmed cases have been reported in four African nations - Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria - while aid workers have been evacuated to the United States and Spain for treatment. On Wednesday a suspected case of Ebola killed a Saudi man in Jeddah who recently visited Sierra Leone on business, meaning human cases of Ebola - once entirely confined to Africa - now likely have traveled to four continents.
A hospital in Benin is treating a Nigerian man suspected of having contracted Ebola and authorities have sent a sample of his blood to Senegal for testing, Health Minister Dorothée Gazard said on state television on Thursday.
The Benin case is unconfirmed but Gazard's announcement triggered widespread fears in the capital Cotonou. Many people said they would stock up on food and stop eating at popular roadside food stalls to avoid possible infection, witnesses said.
LIBERIA DECLARES EMERGENCY
Police and soldiers in Sierra Leone blockaded rural areas hit by Ebola on Thursday, a senior officer said, after neighboring Liberia declared a state of emergency to tackle the outbreak.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced emergency measures late on Wednesday that will, for 90 days, allow her government to curtail civil rights by imposing quarantines on badly affected communities to contain the epidemic.
Though the vast majority of cases are in the remote border area of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, concern over Ebola's spread grew last month when a U.S. citizen died in Nigeria of the virus after arriving from the region. A nurse who treated him has now also died in Lagos, and at least five other people have been isolated with symptoms.
Some major airlines, such as British Airways and Emirates, have halted flights to affected countries, while many expatriates are leaving, officials have said.
In eastern Sierra Leone - the worst-hit area of the country - the head of police said security forces deployed last night "to establish a complete blockade" of Kenema and Kailahun districts, setting up 16 checkpoints on major roads.
"No vehicles or persons are allowed into or out of the districts," Alfred Karrow-Kamara told Reuters, saying the measures would last for an initial 50-day period.
He said traders who had registered with security agencies would be able to bring in food and medicines. Security forces would mount foot patrols to ensure civilians did not slip past their roadblocks through the bush.
Among some of the world's poorest states, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea had shown signs of progress, leaving behind bloody civil wars fueled by post-colonial poverty. How much Ebola permanently hampers the sputtering economies remains to be seen. The outbreak is hampering transport of goods, tourism, and pulling workers from their mines and farm fields, either to care for the sick or to avoid falling ill themselves.
Liberian and Sierra Leonean officials appealed to major investors not to abandon their countries because of Ebola.
"My message is: 'Don't leave the country. Stay with us - let's fight this together'," Liberia's Finance Minister Amara Konneh said.
The State Department said U.S. staff would remain on active duty at the embassy and additional staff were being sent to help the government tackle the outbreak of the deadly virus.
"The latest wave of the outbreak has overwhelmed Liberia's health system and most health facilities lack sufficient staff or resources to address the continuing transmission" of the disease, it said.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced a state of emergency on Wednesday effective for 90 days that allows the government to curtail civil rights and deploy troops and police to impose quarantines on badly affected communities.
Three treatments have shown especially promising results in monkeys, the researchers said. One, produced by tiny California biotech Mapp Biopharmaceutical, gained international prominence this week when it was given to two U.S. aid workers who contracted Ebola in West Africa and have since shown signs of improvement.
Others are from Vancouver-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and privately-held Profectus BioSciences, of Tarrytown, NY.
Tekmira Pharmaceutical Corp said on Thursday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had modified its clinical hold status on Tekmira's experimental Ebola treatment to enable its potential use in humans infected with the virus.
The Obama administration is setting up a special Ebola working group that will consider "principles of decision-making" with the potential use of experimental drugs to help those infected by the disease in Africa, an official said Thursday.
On Wednesday the World Health Organization said it would discuss next week the ethics of using Ebola drugs that have never been cleared for human use, wary of a long history of medicines being tested on people who were never properly informed of the risks. In the countries hardest hit by Ebola, suspicion of foreign medical workers is already widespread.
But the health minister of Nigeria, Onyenbuchi Chukwu, told reporters this week that he had asked U.S. health officials about access to experimental Ebola therapies. U.S. drug makers are fielding questions from government officials about their ability to supply treatments in sufficient quantities should the request come.
"For years we've told the government you need to invest a little bit of money in this," said Profectus chief scientific officer John Eldridge. "And now it's, 'Oh my God, how fast can you make this?'"
Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, President Barack Obama said he lacks enough information to green-light Mapp's drug to treat the deadly Ebola virus and that the initial response should focus on public health measures to contain the outbreak.
SPANISH PATIENT STABLE
In Liberia, where the death toll is rising fastest, authorities on Wednesday shut a major hospital after its Cameroonian director died of Ebola and six other staff tested positive, including two nuns and a 75-year-old priest.
The first European infected by a strain of Ebola, Spanish priest Miguel Pajares, was stable in a Madrid hospital on Thursday after being airlifted from Liberia, health authorities said.
Pajares, 75, was working for a non-governmental organization in Liberia and was repatriated along with his co-worker Juliana Bohi, a nun who has tested negative for the disease.
"The patients have arrived well, though a little disoriented. They are both now in quarantine," Madrid health official Javier Rodriguez told a news conference.
The medical plane flown out to Liberia to bring Pajares and Bohi back to Spain touched ground at a military base in Madrid at 2:00 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) before the two were escorted by police motorbikes and cars to the Carlos III hospital.
The hospital has cleared the entire sixth floor to treat the two patients, the health union said.
HEALTH WORKERS DYING
President Johnson-Sirleaf said in a statement late on Wednesday that 32 health workers had already died of the disease and many sick people were going untreated after doctors deserted their posts. Schools across the country were shut last week and non-essential government workers temporarily laid off.
With Liberian troops being deployed to quarantine badly hit communities, Johnson-Sirleaf said the state of emergency was necessary for "the very survival of our state and for the protection of the lives of our people".
The military deployment - Operation White Shield - is expected to be fully in place by Friday, officials said.
In the ramshackle, ocean-front capital, residents greeted the announcement with alarm.
"This is the beginning of hardship. Ninety days of fear and suffering," said Nancy Poure, a small trader in the suburb of Johnsonville. "We need help from America. We need help."