A TEXAS healthcare worker has tested positive for Ebola despite wearing full protective gear while caring for a patient who later died from the virus, US health officials said yesterday.
If the diagnosis is confirmed, it will be the first known case of the disease being contracted or transmitted in the US. Dr Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the diagnosis showed there was a clear breach of safety protocol and all those who treated Thomas Eric Duncan are now considered to be potentially exposed.
It also emerged that a medical clinic in Braintree, Massachusetts, had to be evacuated and a patient isolated because of his recent travel to West Africa and medical symptoms, the Harvard Vanguard Medical Centre, near Boston, confirmed to an American newspaper yesterday: “Ebola protocol is in place.”
The Texas worker wore a gown, gloves, mask and eye shield while she cared for Mr Duncan during his second visit to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, said Dr Daniel Varga of Texas Health Resources, which runs the hospital.
Dr Frieden said the worker has not been able to identify a specific breach of protocol that might have led to her being infected.
Mr Duncan, who arrived in the US from Liberia to visit his family on 20 September, first sought medical care for fever and abdominal pain on 25 September. He told a nurse he had travelled from Africa, but he was sent home.
He returned on 28 September and was placed in isolation because of suspected Ebola. He died on Wednesday.
More than 4,000 people have died in the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures published on Friday. Almost all of those deaths have been in the three worst-affected countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Texas health officials have been closely monitoring nearly 50 people who had or may have had close contact with Mr Duncan in the days after he started showing symptoms.
Dr Varga said the healthcare worker reported a fever on Friday night as part of a self-monitoring regime required by the CDC. He said another person is in isolation, and the hospital has stopped accepting new emergency room patients.
“We knew a second case could be a reality, and we’ve been preparing for this possibility,” said Dr David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. “We are broadening our team in Dallas and working with extreme diligence to prevent further spread.”
But Dr Frieden yesterday raised concerns about a possible breach of protocol and said that among the things CDC will investigate is how the workers took off their protective gear, because removing it incorrectly can lead to contamination.
Investigators will also look at dialysis and intubation – procedures with the potential for spreading infectious material.
Ebola spreads through close contact with a person’s bodily fluids. Those fluids must have an entry point, like a cut or scrape or someone touching the nose, mouth or eyes with contaminated hands.
Mr Duncan’s neighbours in Liberia believe he became infected when he helped a neighbour who later died from the disease. It was unclear if he knew about her diagnosis before travelling.