DALLAS (Reuters) - The United States is establishing a rapid-response team to help hospitals “within hours” whenever there is a case of Ebola, the top doctor leading the fight against the deadly virus said on Tuesday.
Prospects for a quick end to the contagion fell as the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that three impoverished countries in West Africa - Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - could produce as many as 10,000 new cases per week by early December.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Thomas Frieden, acknowledging the lapses in treatment in Dallas for a Liberian man in late September, told reporters:
“I wish we had put a team like this on the ground the day the first patient was diagnosed ... but we will do that from today onward with any case in the U.S.”
“We will be there, hands on, within hours, helping hospitals with the situation if there is another case,” he said.
A nurse who contracted Ebola from the Liberian patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, in a Dallas hospital said on Tuesday she was doing well, while Frieden said 76 people were still being monitored in the Dallas area. The nurse, Nina Pham, 26, is “in good condition,” Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital said in a statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama, addressing defense chiefs from about 20 countries, said “the world as a whole is not doing enough” to combat the hemorrhagic fever and must stop it at its source. Health authorities say the outbreak in West Africa is the worst on record with at least 4,447 dead. An unrelated outbreak has killed more than 40 people in Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ebola, which can cause fever, bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea, spreads through contact with bodily fluids such as blood or saliva. The Dallas nurse, Pham, became the first person infected by Ebola in the United States while caring for Duncan for much of his 11 days in the hospital. He died on Oct. 8.
Pham received a transfusion on Monday containing antibodies to fight the virus, according to a Roman Catholic priest in her congregation. Duncan did not receive one because he did not match the donor’s blood type. Christian relief group Samaritan’s Purse has said that Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician who survived an Ebola infection, donated plasma to Pham.
“I’m doing well and want to thank everyone for their kind wishes and prayers,” Pham said in a statement released by the hospital. “I am blessed by the support of family and friends.”
The CDC’s Frieden said at a news conference that 48 people who had potential contact with Duncan “have passed through the highest risk period” for developing Ebola symptoms. He said 76 people who may have come into contact with Duncan after he was hospitalized on Sept. 28 now were being monitored. That group includes Pham and other health workers and hospital staff.
WHITE HOUSE DEFENDS CDC‘S FRIEDEN
The hospital has been criticized for not admitting Duncan the first time he sought help, days after arriving in the United States from Liberia. He returned days later in an ambulance.
“We did send some expertise in infection control, but I think ... we could have sent a more robust hospital infection control team and been more hands on,” Frieden said on Tuesday.
He said two nurses from Emory University’s Serious Communicable Disease Unit are now on the ground working with the Dallas hospital on the proper use of personal protective gear.
Frieden is recommending that the hospital limit the number of staff who care for Pham so that people who treat her can become more familiar and more comfortable with using protective gear. Nurses groups have demanded better training and guidance on how to use equipment that already includes face shields, masks, gowns and gloves.
Frieden has come under pressure over the response and preparedness for Ebola, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama is confident of Frieden’s ability to lead the public health effort. He said White House Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco “continues to play the role of coordinating the efforts” of all agencies involved.
WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward said on Tuesday that by the first week in December, the WHO projections suggest there may be between 5,000 and 10,000 new cases a week in impoverished Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Aylward stressed the difficulty of making accurate predictions. The WHO said the actual mortality rate is about 70 percent in those countries, compared with the roughly 50 percent reported previously.
One person known to have had close contact with the Dallas nurse Pham has been put under observation in the hospital in case he develops signs of Ebola, the CBS Dallas television station reported on Tuesday.
The man, who has not been identified, is an employee of global eye care company Alcon, a unit of the drug company Novartis. The company was not immediately available to comment.
White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan pressed U.S. lawmakers to speed up funds to fight Ebola, including the remaining $250 million in requested Defense Department money under review.
“The rapid spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa shows that time is of the essence. Given the nature of this crisis, every minute counts,” Donovan wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers and ranking Democrat Nita Lowey.
Meanwhile, the family who shared an apartment with Duncan after he arrived in Texas is showing no signs of illness, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said on CNN.
The infection of the Dallas nurse is the second known to have occurred outside West Africa since the outbreak that began in March. It follows the transmission of the virus to a Spanish nurse in Madrid who helped treat a missionary who was repatriated from Sierra Leone and died of Ebola. The nurse was slightly better on Tuesday and remains the only known case in Spain.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; and Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and David Lawder in Washington; Editing by Jim Loney, Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool