Georgia-based relief agency fights Ebola outbreak
By SARAH LUNDGREN
The Brunswick News
BRUNSWICK — As the Ebola crisis in West Africa continues to escalate, MAP International is sharpening its focus on getting medical aid to where it is needed most.
With the number of deaths reaching into the thousands, the epidemic's profile has heightened in the U.S. recently after the two infected American patients were brought to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for treatment. Although some in this country are only now beginning to pay attention, MAP has been involved with the fight against Ebola from the beginning.
Since the initial outbreak at the end of March, the international relief aid organization headquartered in Brunswick had sent more than 24,000 personal protection kits and $6.6 million worth of medicines and essential supplies to the affected countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
And the organization is about to send more. Partnering with American Leprosy Missions of Greenville, South Carolina, MAP shipped out another 5,600 personal protection kits and another $1.6 million worth of MAP Medical Mission kits to Liberia, a hot bed of Ebola activity — both in terms of the disease as well as the panic it has created.
The personal protection kits include infectious disease protection suits, goggles and masks that are key in providing protection for health care workers dealing with Ebola patients, says Kipp Branch, MAP's global essential medicines and supplies manager. They provide a physical barrier to inhibit the spread of the disease as well as a sense of security for frightened workers. Several hospitals in Africa have closed because of employees afraid to come to work.
"MAP has a Liberia country office, and our representative there will facilitate the clearance for this shipment in customs over there, hand it over to the Liberian Ministry of Health and they will get the shipment rushed to the most needed areas," Branch said. "I spoke with our representative last Friday, actually, and he was telling me about a few more hospitals closing and just the general panic in the country right now. People are starting to die of basic health care things that aren't Ebola affected, and that's why we're sending the medical mission kits as well. People still have basic health care needs that aren't being met (because of the focus on Ebola)."
The medical mission packs include just about everything, Branch says, from antibiotics to oral rehydration salts to basic analgesics like Advil and Tylenol. A total of 150 boxes will be packed with medicine in Monday's shipment, with each box supplying at least 350 treatments to basic health care problems.
"Last week alone, we had 11 new relief shipments going to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and now we have today's. It's exciting to be able to provide the supplies needed so often, but it's so tough because we're a mission-based organization — when people are suffering is when we're busy like this," Branch said.
And it's just getting started, he adds. Requests continue to pour in, and he expects regular shipments to continue as often as financially possible. That will be for some time, he said. Aid doesn't end when a disaster stops being a headline on the nightly news, he added.
"I've taken two trips to the Philippines in just the last eight months," Branch said of MAP's continued efforts in the country rocked by a typhoon in November. "We're actually sending out a shipment of more relief supplies this week to the Philippines. It'll mean we'll reach somewhere near the $11 million mark in support."
With the shipment to Liberia, MAP will reach the $8 million mark in relief aid given to various countries in the Ebola crisis.
ATLANTA — As one of few Ebola survivors with medical expertise, Dr. Kent Brantly seems keenly aware of the position his painful experience has put him in. He hasn't spoken yet about his plans, but spent much of his first public appearance pleading for help for countries still struggling with the virus.
"I am forever thankful to God for sparing my life and am glad for any attention my sickness has attracted to the plight of West Africa in the midst of this epidemic," Brantly said Thursday before leaving Emory University Hospital, where he and a medical missionary colleague spent three weeks in an isolation unit as they recovered.
"Please continue to pray for Liberia and the people of West Africa, and encourage those in positions of leadership and influence to do everything possible to bring this Ebola outbreak to an end," he added. Then he hugged all the doctors and nurses at the news conference, a very public display of affection telegraphing the message that Ebola survivors are not contagious.
With the world watching, Brantly could continue sending these messages from the United States or even return to Africa.
Dr. Bruce Ribner, who runs Emory's infectious disease unit, said he would not discourage an Ebola survivor from treating those with the disease, since they've effectively been vaccinated against this strain and there is no danger of a relapse.
"There would be no concerns and in fact the likelihood is we would anticipate immunity to this virus so that they would probably not be at risk for infection if they were caring for patients with Ebola virus disease during this outbreak," Ribner said.
The same goes for Nancy Writebol, Brantly's missionary colleague, who was quietly released Tuesday. They are effectively vaccinated against the current strain of the Ebola virus, should recover completely, and no one should fear being in contact with them, Ribner said.
"My family and I will now be going away for a period of time to reconnect, decompress and continue to recover physically and emotionally. After I have recovered a little more and regained some of my strength, we will look forward to sharing more of our story," said Brantly, visibly thinner than he appeared in an image circulated earlier by his charity organization, the North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse.
Writebol's son, Jeremy Writebol, said in a telephone interview that his mother is able to move around, eat and drink normally. His parents are considering their next steps, he said.
Brantly's reappearance was celebratory, in contrast to his arrival in an ambulance under police escort three weeks earlier, when he shuffled into the hospital wearing a bulky white hazardous materials suit. Both patients were discharged after their blood tested clean of the virus, which is spread only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick people experiencing symptoms.
After Brantly, 33, and Writebol, 59, were infected while working with Ebola victims in Liberia, their charity organizations, Samaritan's Purse and SIM, reached out to top infectious disease experts for help.
Working connections, they obtained one of only five courses available worldwide of an experimental drug known as Zmapp, and Brantly and Writebol split the doses before being evacuated to Atlanta. The other four were later given to a Spanish priest, who died, and three doctors in Africa, who have been improving.
Brantly's doctors cautioned that it's unclear whether the drug or a blood transfusion he got from a young Ebola survivor in Africa helped, hurt or made no difference at all.
"They are the very first individuals to have received this treatment and frankly we do not know," Ribner said.
Brantly didn't take questions Thursday, but he did briefly describe his experience in Liberia, where they saw their first Ebola patient in June. Soon, many more arrived.
He said his team took all the precautions they could. Three days after his wife and children returned to the U.S., Brantly woke up feeling sick and was diagnosed with the disease. For nine days, he prayed for faith.
"I serve a faithful God who answers prayers," he said.
There is a huge gap between the treatment these Americans got at Emory, where five infectious disease experts and 21 nurses provided rigorous care, and West Africa, where the virus has killed more than 1,300 people and counting, and even such basics as sterile fluids can be in short supply.
Ribner insisted that bringing them to Atlanta "was the right decision" and said the hospital could decide to take more Ebola patients on a case by case basis.
"We cannot let our fears dictate our actions," Ribner said.
The treatment of these two Americans may already lead to better care for Ebola patients anywhere. For example, their doctors now believe common fluid-replacement measures may need more nutrients to help patients recover. Emory's team has begun sharing its findings with other doctors, and hopes to publish in a medical journal.
At least 2,473 people have been sickened in this outbreak — more than the caseloads of all the previous two-dozen Ebola outbreaks combined, according to the World Health Organization.
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas, and AP Medical Writer Mike Stobbe in New York contributed to this report.