Plane arrives in W. Africa to evacuate Americans infected with Ebola

[Updated at 6 p.m. ET]

A U.S. medical rescue team has arrived in West Africa to evacuate two Americans seriously ill with the deadly Ebola virus, doctors with Emory University Hospital said on Friday.

Medics from the air ambulance have deemed Dr. Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol stable enough to transport. The small private jet can carry only one patient at a time. It was undetermined on Friday who would come back first.

The patients will land at Dobbins Air Reserve Base before being transported 16 miles to a high-security isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Officials expect both will arrive by early next week.

The medical evacuations were arranged by the faith-based humanitarian group Samaritan's Purse, but are being facilitated by the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It will mark the first time that an Ebola patient has been known to be treated in the United States.

“The safety and security of U.S. citizens is our paramount concern,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokesperson, said in a statement. “Every precaution is being taken to move the patients safely and securely, to provide critical care en route on a non-commercial aircraft, and to maintain strict isolation upon arrival in the United States.”

Nancy Writebol with children in Liberia in 2013. (AP Photo/Courtesy Jeremy Writebol)
Nancy Writebol with children in Liberia in 2013. (AP Photo/Courtesy Jeremy Writebol)

Officials say the air ambulance is outfitted with a portable tent designed for transporting patients with highly infectious diseases.

“CDC protocols and equipment are used for these kinds of medical evacuations so that they are carried out safely, thereby protecting the patient and the American public, as has been done with similar medical evacuations in the past,” Harf said in the statement.

Samaritan’s Purse, one of two faith-based groups sponsoring the missionaries, said it expects the evacuations to be complete by early next week. But flight plans for the private aircraft indicate one of the patients could arrive as early as Saturday.

Brantly, 33, and Writebol, 59, were among a team of Americans working at a local hospital in Monrovia, where they have been taking in scores of Liberia’s Ebola patients for months.

Sixty nonessential American personnel and their dependents associated with Samaritan’s Purse’s and SIM will return to the U.S. by Sunday, according to Samaritan’s Purse.

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The humanitarian organization said the other evacuees are healthy. A spokesperson for Samaritan’s Purse declined to say if the group would be required to stay together or be medically monitored in the U.S.

“Although nonessential SIM personnel are leaving the country, SIM is sending in another of its doctors to help with the treatment of Ebola patients at its ELWA treatment center in Monrovia,” the organization said in a statement. “SIM currently has two doctors caring for Writebol and Brantly, and its Liberian staff is still engaged in the region.

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Ebola, which is spread through contact with bodily fluids, is highly contagious and deadly. There is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola.

The virus can kill up to 90 percent of those infected, but Dr. Bruce Ribner said he hoped Emory's facilities and knowledge will increase the missonaries' chances of survival. The hospital’s isolation unit, one of four of its kind in the country, was built in collaboration with the CDC

“We have a specially designed unit, which is highly contained,” Ribner, an infectious disease specialist at Emory, told reporters. “We have highly trained personnel who know how to safely enter the room of a patient who requires this form of isolation.”

Brantly and Writebol will be cared for by a team of four infectious disease doctors and other specialists trained in infection control.

“Basically we depend on the body’s defense system to control the virus,” Ribner said. “We just have to keep the patient alive long enough in order for the body to control this infection.”

Amber Brantly, a nurse, was in Liberia with her husband and their children Ruby, 5, and Stephen, 3, until recently, leaving to visit family in Texas. Dr. Brantly was due to join them this week until he became ill.

“Many people have been asking how I am doing,” Amber said in a written statement late Thursday. “The children and I are physically fine. We had left Liberia prior to Kent’s exposure to the virus.”

She asked for continued prayers for her husband and the estimated 1,300 others in West Africa who have been diagnosed with the virus. The outbreak, the worst since the disease first emerged in Africa nearly 40 years ago, has killed more than 700 people this year.

“I remain hopeful and believing that Kent will be healed from this dreadful disease,” Amber said in the statement. “I am grateful for the daily reports I receive from his doctors on the ground. He is strong and peaceful and confident in the love of Jesus Christ, which is his sustenance right now.”

(Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox contributed to this report.)

Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).

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