By Lisa Maria Garza and Richard Valdmanis
A Liberian man who was the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States died in a Texas hospital on Wednesday, his case having put health authorities on alert for the deadly virus spreading outside of West Africa.
About 48 people who had direct or indirect contact with the man since he arrived in the United States from Liberia on September 20 are being monitored, but none have yet shown any symptoms, according to health officials.
“It is with profound sadness and heartfelt disappointment that we must inform you of the death of Thomas Eric Duncan this morning at 7,51 am,” Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas spokesman Wendell Watson said in an emailed statement.
Duncan’s case has led to expanded efforts by US authorities to combat the spread of Ebola at its source in West Africa and raised questions about the effectiveness of airport screening and hospital preparedness.
Duncan became ill after arriving in Dallas to visit family.
He went to the Dallas hospital on September 25, but was initially sent home with antibiotics. His condition worsened, he returned September 28 by ambulance and was diagnosed with Ebola, which has killed more than 3,400 people in the worst-hit impoverished countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
“I am in tears. All of us are in tears,” Wilfred Smallwood, Duncan’s half brother, said from his home in Phoenix, Arizona.
The current Ebola outbreak began in March and has killed nearly half of those infected, according to the World Health Organization. Ebola can take as long as three weeks before its victims show symptoms, at which point the disease becomes contagious. Ebola, which can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhea, spreads through contact with bodily fluids such as blood or saliva.
While several American patients have been flown to the United States from West Africa for treatment, Duncan was the first person to start showing symptoms on US soil.
A nurse in Spain who treated a priest who worked in West Africa is also infected.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday appealed to other governments to do more to help contain the spread of Ebola, urged countries not to shut their borders and told airlines to keep flying to West Africa.
“More countries can and must step up,” Kerry said.
Shares of biotech companies linked to the development of treatments against Ebola reacted sharply on Wednesday to Duncan’s death. Shares in Chimerix, whose experimental Ebola drug was being administered to Duncan, tumbled 9.5 per cent to $30.08. US-traded shares of Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp, whose treatment has been used in other Ebola patients, sharply pared losses, briefly turning positive after having fallen as much as 8.8 per cent earlier.
Duncan was able to fly to the United States from Liberia’s capital Monrovia because he did not have a fever when screened at the airport and filled out a questionnaire saying he had not been in contact with anyone infected with Ebola.
Liberian officials have said that Duncan lied on the questionnaire and had been in contact with a pregnant woman who later died of the disease.
The United States will begin imposing new screening measures to travelers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea as soon as this weekend, CNN reported on Wednesday. The additional screening could also be extended to passengers from other nations struggling with the outbreak, said the report, citing the US government.
Officials have said as many as 48 people may have been exposed to the disease by Duncan, and that the 10 people at highest risk are cooperating with public health authorities by staying in quarantine voluntarily. The other 38 people who may have been exposed are being checked routinely for fever.
“The past week has been an enormous test of our health system, but for one family it has been far more personal. Today they lost a dear member of their family. They have our sincere condolences, and we are keeping them in our thoughts,” David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a statement.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said he was confident the disease would not spread widely within the United States.