Early encounter with Ebola still resonates with K-State expert

Until two Ebola patients arrived in the country, few probably had given much thought to the chance the deadly virus might find its way across oceans from Africa to U.S. shores.

But Jerry Jaax has always known about the possibility.

In fact, Jaax, an Ebola expert, said the only other time a clinical case of the infectious disease had been documented in the United States was more than two decades ago, in monkeys in Virginia. Jaax was there.

The 68-year-old K-State associate vice president for research compliance is one of the foremost experts in the United States on threats posed by pathogens and infectious diseases, including Ebola.

In 1989, Jaax, then a veterinarian with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, worked with researchers who identified a strain of the Ebola virus in 500 macaque monkeys that had been shipped to Reston, Va., from the Philippines. The threat was a potential outbreak around the nation’s capital.

The scientists didn’t know it at first, but their strain was not the same as the deadly hemorrhagic virus first seen in 1976. That’s the same one that has killed more than 900 people in Africa since February and recently was contracted by two Americans, who now have been flown from Liberia, where they had been helping Ebola patients, to the U.S. for treatment.

Nancy Writebol, a 59-year-old missionary aid worker, arrived in Atlanta on Tuesday and was rolled into Emory University Hospital on a stretcher. Kent Brantly, a 33-year-old doctor, walked into the hospital on Saturday.

Both are quarantined in a medical containment facility at Emory, which is said to be the best equipped hospital to deal with this level of infectious disease.

Ebola has no proven cure. It’s an infectious disease with a 90 percent mortality rate, Jaax said: “Nine out of 10 people who get it will die.” He said the only other virus with a higher mortality rate is rabies.

“How they are handling those patients in Atlanta is based on things we did in Reston,” Jaax said. “We had real data. We learned a lot about what works with Ebola, so a lot of what we learned is being played out now — the personal protection equipment, and the disinfectant solutions for managing the flow of contaminated supplies.”

Still, global fear has grown that the deadly virus might spread.

In addition to Liberia, the Ebola outbreak that began earlier this year has spread in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. More than 1,700 people have already been infected, according to the World Health Organization.

Al-Jazeera reported on Thursday that a Saudi national who was being tested for the virus died Wednesday and an Ebola-infected Spanish missionary was being treated in Spain.

Travel restrictions have been issued in the West African countries where the outbreak is heaviest. Liberia’s president has declared a national state of emergency, and in Sierra Leone officials are trying to keep the sick isolated.

Talk of Ebola claimed time at this week’s U.S.-Africa Summit, which centered on building business ties with African nations.

In South Korea, a university rescinded an invitation it had extended earlier to Nigerian students to attend a conference in Seoul. And within the last two weeks, two false reports of Ebola-infected people surfaced in New York.

Jaax isn’t worried that Ebola might escape in to the general public here. Even if it did, “chances are remote” that the U.S. would see an outbreak, mostly because the United States’ public health infrastructure “has dumped a boatload of money” into dealing with this sort of thing and is prepared, he said.

Also, “Ebola is not easy to catch from someone else,” Jaax said. “You’d have to have contact with tissues or fluids from someone with the disease. Humans aren’t known to be carriers, either. If someone has Ebola, they are going to be really, noticeably sick. It has an alarming clinical presence.”

Among the symptoms: fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain and lack of appetite, or unexplained hemorrhaging.

But, he said, you could sit beside someone with Ebola on an airplane and as long as the ill person doesn’t vomit, sneeze or cough on you, and you don’t touch him, you won’t get it.

A doctor at the University of Kansas Hospital suggests that anyone experiencing the symptoms after traveling out of the country is more likely to have contracted malaria, as the two conditions share many symptoms.

“Malaria kills close to a million people annually worldwide,” said James L. Fishback, a professor of pathology and lab medicine at the University of Kansas Hospital. “We’ve never had an outbreak of (Ebola) on U.S. soil, but we treat a few cases of malaria here at KU Hospital every year, as well as tuberculosis, which also claims nearly a million lives every year.”

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have been criticized for bringing Ebola cases to an American hospital. But Jaax and other scientists think bringing the two patients infected with Ebola to the U.S. provides a better chance of learning more about possible treatments for the disease.

“The U.S. has invested heavily in public health. It’s easy to say it’s enough when you are worried about potholes,” Jaax said. “But just being able to put people in containment to protect everyone else isn’t enough. ... We can’t wait until we have an outbreak to figure out how to deal with it.”

Star news services contributed to this story.

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.