By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - An American doctor who was working with missionaries in West Africa is being moved to an isolation ward at an Atlanta hospital on Friday with a suspected case of Lassa fever, a deadly hemorrhagic disease similar to Ebola, officials said.
The patient, who has not been identified publicly, was being flown in a specially equipped aircraft from Togo and was expected to arrive at Emory University Hospital sometime Friday or this weekend, officials said.
The isolation ward is where Emory successfully treated four Ebola patients in 2014, said Dr. Bruce Ribner, director of Emory's Serious Communicable Disease Unit.
“The take-away from this for the public, is that there is absolutely no risk to anyone,” he said. “We’ve shown that we can handle Ebola and this is a lot less communicable.”
Lassa fever has been endemic in Africa for many years, with up to 300,000 infections annually. Only about 3 percent presenting symptoms severe enough need hospitalization, Ribner said.
Of those hospitalized, about 20 percent of the cases are fatal, compared with a 70 percent rate for all patients who catch Ebola, which is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids.
“With Lassa, most of the people who get it never even know it,” Ribner said.
The worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history began in West Africa in December 2013, spreading to at least 11 countries on the continent before petering out. In all, more than 11,300 people died, almost all in the three worst-affected countries.
At its height, the Ebola outbreak sparked fear around the world, prompting governments and businesses to take emergency precautions.
An outbreak of Lassa fever is now underway in Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization, and it is starting to spread to nearby countries including Togo.
According to a WHO statement, 159 suspected cases of Lassa fever and 82 deaths were reported between August 2015 and January 2016. Some media reports have said as many as 101 people have died as of February.
Like Ebola, Lassa causes a severe fever with bleeding, Ribner said. It is most commonly transmitted to people from rodent excrement, and it can be transmitted from person to person by contact with blood or bodily fluids, Ribner said.
He said the hospital will take every precaution and that the public should not be alarmed.
“You can’t catch it like you get the common cold,” he said. "We can handle this."
(Editing By Frank McGurty, Bernard Orr)