Traveling from Sierra Leone in a tented isolation unit on board a Phoenix Air medical evacuation plane, physician Martin Salia, infected with the Ebola virus, will arrive in the U.S. today for treatment. Salia was the chief medical officer, working as a general surgeon at Freetown’s Kissy United Methodist Hospital, which was closed on Nov. 11 after the physician tested positive for Ebola. He is the sixth doctor to be infected with the virus in Sierra Leone. The other five have all died.
Salia is a legal, permanent resident of the U.S., living in Maryland with his wife and children, aged 12 and 20. His wife, Isatu Salia, said her husband travels frequently to his native Sierra Leone because he believes people in Africa need him.
With symptoms including a headache and fever and two negative Ebola virus tests, the 44-year-old physician initially thought he had typhoid or malaria. Then the third Ebola test came back positive. He is said to be critically ill and, according to Nebraska Medical Center where Salia is headed, may be sicker than the other patients who were treated successfully in the U.S. He will be the third person treated for the deadly virus at the Omaha facility, which has a sealed biocontainment unit that is separate from other patient treatment areas.
The U.S. State Department is helping to facilitate Salia’s transfer to the U.S., which the U.S. Embassy in Freetown says the physician is paying for himself. The evacuation is being done at the request of the doctor’s wife. The patient is expected to arrive in Omaha around 4 p.m. central time. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that all precautions are being taken to ensure that the evacuation is carried out safely and securely, with critical care provided en route and strict isolation standards maintained.
More than 5,170 West Africans have been killed by the Ebola virus, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. More than 14,000 cases have been reported. A separate outbreak in the Congo that killed at least 49 people has been declared to be over.
There is no specific cure for Ebola virus disease, but severely ill patients need intensive supportive care including intravenous or oral fluids to combat dehydration. Salia will be the 10th patient treated in the U.S. Eight have been cured, and one, Thomas Eric Duncan, died in Dallas in September. Treatment has included blood serum from an Ebola virus survivor and experimental drugs.
The Omaha hospital is one of four U.S. hospitals with specialized treatment units for patients with highly infectious and dangerous diseases. It was chosen as the location for Salia’s treatment because workers at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and the National Institutes of Health near Washington are still in 21-day monitoring periods after treating other Ebola virus patients.
Salia’s 20-year-old son, Maada, said that his father was well aware of the risks of working with Ebola patients, but remained determined to help to “show that he loves his people.” Sierra Leone is one of the West African nations hardest hit by the virus.
By Beth A. Balen