An American healthcare worker who was providing medical assistance in the Democratic Republic of Congo and may have been exposed to the Ebola virus was flown to the U.S. on Dec. 29 for monitoring at a Nebraska hospital.
The unidentified person has no symptoms of Ebola but is being monitored closely at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which is part of the Nebraska Medicine health system.
The facility declined to say whether the healthcare worker was a doctor, nurse or some other type of professional.
"While this person isn't officially a patient, we will be honoring their request for privacy while they are being monitored here," Nebraska Medicine said.
The healthcare worker, who was transported to the U.S. by private plane and then by automobile to the hospital, could be monitored for up to two weeks, the facility said in a statement.
"This person may have been exposed to the virus but is not ill and is not contagious," said Ted Cieslak, an infectious diseases specialist with Nebraska Medicine and associate professor of epidemiology in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.
He said the Nebraska hospital and university medical team was "among the most qualified in the world to deal" with the situation.
Nebraska Medical Center is one of the hospitals in the U.S. that have a special biocontainment unit to handle patients infected with highly contagious diseases. The unit is in a secure area not accessible by the public or any patients, Nebraska Medicine emphasized.
"The team at Nebraska has treated more Ebola patients than any other U.S. facility," Ronald Klain, who was appointed in October 2014 by President Barack Obama as the nation's Ebola czar, said in a Dec. 29 tweet.
The other U.S. biocontainment units include those at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont., Emory University Hospital near Atlanta, Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore and at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.
During the Ebola epidemic that struck West Africa in 2013 — sickening over 28,600 people and killing more than 11,300 before ending in 2016 — Nebraska Medicine treated three patients with the virus in 2014.
Two men infected with Ebola in Liberia in 2014 — Rick Sacra, a doctor and an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, and Ashoka Mukpo, a freelance journalist and cameraman who was working for NBC News — were successfully treated for the disease at Nebraska Medical Center. But a third patient, Martin Salia, who was infected in Sierra Leone and was gravely ill when he arrived at the Nebraska facility, died two days after being admitted to the hospital.
In 2015, several other people were brought to Nebraska Medical Center for monitoring after they were exposed to Ebola, though none of those individuals developed the disease.
Over the past four years, infectious disease experts from Nebraska Medicine and its academic partner the University of Nebraska Medical Center have trained other healthcare workers across the U.S. and around the world in dealing with Ebola and other highly contagious conditions.
The facility said that unless the need arises, it would not be providing updates on the status of the unidentified healthcare worker during the monitoring period.
"However, if it becomes necessary for this person to be transferred to the Nebraska biocontainment unit, regular updates should be expected," the facility said.
Outbreak spreads in midst of armed conflict
The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second deadliest in the virus' history.
Since Aug. 1, when the latest outbreak was declared in the DRC, 593 cases of the disease have been reported — 545 confirmed and 48 probable — with 359 of those people dying, the nation's health ministry reported Dec. 28.
It said 203 people have recovered from the disease. An additional 66 cases were under investigation.
There are currently a number of drugs being tested to treat Ebola in the DRC. An experimental vaccine from Merck & Co. Inc. is also being used.
But an increasingly worsening armed conflict in the DRC has impeded work by the World Health Organization and other groups that have been responding to the outbreak.
The nonprofit humanitarian crisis group International Rescue Committee said it was forced to temporarily suspend its Ebola response and other programming in two areas in the DRC — Beni and Butembo — after a delay in elections led to violent protests and attacks on aid workers.
It said some of its supported facilities were damaged, destroyed, looted and burned, and healthcare staff was afraid to continue following proper response protocols.
"The situation has become too dangerous for IRC staff to continue its life-saving work," the group said in a Dec. 29 statement.
It warned that a suspension in the Ebola response could allow the disease to spread unabated and lead to an international health catastrophe.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the response to the outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri has continued, despite a deterioration of security, but healthcare teams were unable to carry out their fieldwork in Beni in recent days, including vaccinations, contact tracing and following up on alerts of potential new cases.
In Butembo, some alerts of potential cases were investigated and confirmed cases were referred to treatment centers but teams were unable to trace contacts or to conduct vaccinations, Tedros said in a Dec. 28 statement.
He said response activities have not been interrupted in other affected areas in the DRC.
"We have reached a critical point in the Ebola response," Tedros said. "After an intensification of field activities, we were seeing hopeful signs in many areas, including a recent decrease in cases in Beni."
He said the WHO hoped to return to full operations as soon as possible.
"We cannot afford to take a step back at this critical point in the response," Tedros said.