ATLANTA - According to sister station WSB-TV in Atlanta, the airplane that will transport Ebola patient Nancy Writebol back to the United States departed Atlanta just before 5:30 p.m. Sunday. The Charlotte missionary stricken with Ebola is expected to fly Tuesday to the U.S. for treatment, following a colleague who was admitted over the weekend to Emory University Hospital's infectious disease unit.
Liberia's Information Minister, Lewis Brown, said the evacuation flight was scheduled to leave West Africa between 1 a.m. and 1.30 a.m. local time Tuesday.
Read more: Son: Mother's Ebola should spark push for cure
The spreading Ebola outbreak that has killed at least 729 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Eyewitness News spoke with Writebol’s friends and family who are praying for her safe return. The family is grateful she will soon be receiving more intensive treatment. Family members are cautiously optimistic as she prepares to depart from West Africa. Writebol’s son, Jeremy Writebol, received an update on his mother’s condition Sunday morning.
“She’s still fighting, still weak, but able to sit up and receive treatment, even eat a little bit and taking fluids,” Jeremy said.
The plane will take Nancy Writebol to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia. She will then join Dr. Kent Brantly in an isolated wing of Emory Hospital for extensive treatment. Brantly was improving Sunday after he was admitted to Emory's quarantine unit a day earlier, according to a statement from his wife.
"Our family is rejoicing over Kent's safe arrival, and we are confident that he is receiving the very best care," Amber Brantly said, adding that she was able to see her husband Sunday.
Jeremy Writebol said he is grateful his mother has the option to travel back to the United States for treatment. He spoke to her by phone on Wednesday.
“It was just a, ‘Mom I love you, praying for you,’ and she said she loves us,” Jeremy Writebol said.
Jeremy Writebol said his parents spent five years in Ecuador and nine years in Zambia before going to Liberia last August.
Pastor John Munro and his congregation at Calvary Church prayed for Nancy Writebol and her husband, David Writebol Sunday morning. Munro said he has been keeping in close contact with David Writebol about his wife’s condition.
“They are very, very thankful for this opportunity to get the best medical treatment there is,” Munro said. “While we appreciate medicine and everything that’s being done our trust ultimately is in the Lord.”
Munro added, "They take the Great Commission literally," a reference to the scriptural instruction from Jesus Christ to "make disciples of all nations."
Munro, whose church sponsors the Writebols' mission work, recalled speaking with the couple when the Ebola outbreak began. "We weren't telling them to come back; we were just willing to help them come back," he said. "They said, 'The work isn't finished, and it must continue.'"
Munro said he is not sure when David Writebol will be able to leave the country. As a precaution, he is in an incubation period in Africa which lasts 21 days.
Brantly and Nancy Writebol served on the same mission team treating Ebola victims when they contracted the virus themselves. Brantly was serving as a physician in the hospital compound near Monrovia, Liberia, when he became infected. Writebol worked as a hygienist whose role included decontaminating those entering or leaving the Ebola treatment area at that hospital.
There is no cure for Ebola, which causes hemorrhagic fever that kills at least 60 percent of the people it infects in Africa. Ebola spreads through close contact with bodily fluids and blood, meaning it is not spread as easily as airborne influenza or the common cold. Africa's under-developed health care system and inadequate infection controls make it easier for the Ebola virus to spread and harder to treat.
Any modern hospital using standard infection-control measures should be able to handle it, and Emory's infectious disease unit is one of about four in the U.S. that is specially equipped to test and treat people exposed to the most dangerous viruses.
Patients are quarantined, sealed off from anyone who is not in protective gear. Lab tests are conducted inside the unit, ensuring that viruses don't leave the quarantined area. Family members can see and communicate with patients only through barriers.
Brantly arrived Saturday under stringent protocols, flying from West Africa to Dobbins Air Reserve base outside Atlanta in a small plane equipped to contain infectious diseases. A small police escort followed his ambulance to Emory, where he emerged dressed head to toe in white protective clothing and walked into the hospital on his own power.
The outbreak comes as nearly 50 African heads of state come to Washington, D.C., for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit — billed as a tool for African nations to integrate more into the world economy and community. With the outbreak, however, the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone have scrapped their plans to attend the three-day summit opening Monday.
Meanwhile, some airlines that serve West Africa have suspended flights, while international groups, including the Peace Corps, have evacuated some or all of their representatives in the region.
In the United States, public health officials continue to emphasize that treating Brantly and Writebol in the U.S. poses no risks to the public here.
"We know how to control it: hospital infection control and stopping it at the source in Africa," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
Frieden's agency is ramping up its effort to combat the outbreak. He promised "50 staff on the ground" in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone "in the next 30 days."
On Sunday, the FDA released the following statement in regards to the development of Ebola treatments in the U.S.:
Currently there are only experimental Ebola treatments in the earliest stages of development. Even though a drug is not approved right now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can still provide access to potential products through other mechanisms, such as through an emergency Investigational New Drug (IND) application. The FDA stands ready to work with companies and investigators treating these patients who are in dire need of treatment.
Regarding Ebola, the FDA is involved in an inter-agency working group led by Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)/Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). This working group is looking to facilitate and accelerate development of potential investigation treatments for Ebola. The FDA’s role involves sharing information about medical products in development as well as communicating our assessment of product readiness and clarifying regulatory pathways for development.
The FDA is also working with U.S. government agencies that fund medical product development and product sponsors to facilitate the development of and access to medical products that could potentially be used to mitigate Ebola. For example, the FDA granted Fast Track Designation to an investigational anti-Ebola therapeutic being developed with support from the U.S. Department of Defense in March 2014. Fast track is a process designed to facilitate the development and expedite the review of drugs to treat serious conditions and fill an unmet medical need. Once a drug receives Fast Track designation, early and frequent communication between the FDA and a drug company is encouraged throughout the entire drug development and review process. The frequency of communication assures that questions and issues are resolved quickly, often leading to earlier drug approval and access by patients.
While the FDA cannot comment on the development of specific medical products, it’s important to note that every FDA regulatory decision is based on a risk-benefit assessment that includes the context of use for the product and the patient population being studied. A clinical hold is based on the risk-benefit assessment for a proposed study. A future proposal for a study or emergency use in a different population, for example in patients with disease, might have an acceptable risk-benefit balance. If the benefits of studying the product on an individual outweigh the risks, we may consider permitting that study to proceed.
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