MIAMI (CBSMiami) – An infectious disease expert from Florida International University has been summoned to join the battle against the Ebola epidemic in Africa. Dr. Aileen Marty was officially called to action Wednesday by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is expected she will be flying overseas within the next few days to join in the effort to contain the outbreak that has killed upwards of 1,000 people, including scores of health care providers.
The mortality rate in the current outbreak, believed to be the worst on record, is about 60 percent.
There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola, which can only be contained by strictly isolating the victims, who may or may not survive the virus. It can end with patients bleeding to death internally. It is spread by bodily fluids – sweat, saliva, mucus – in close contact.
“It’s an incredibly serious situation,” Dr. Marty told CBS4’s Gary Nelson on Wednesday. “It is very, very scary.”
Marty said the possibility that she could become infected in Africa “is real,” and admits to having some trepidation about the mission. “Obviously, I have to bear in mind that this serious condition exists,” she said.
Marty is no stranger to danger. Facing it has been her business for decades. She has fought all manner of deadly contagions around the world. During a 25 year stint in the Navy, she traveled to many nations to combat diseases such as Dengue and Typhoid, and helped develop anti-biological warfare plans for the United States.
When the call came to go to Africa, she didn’t hesitate.
“Service is part of the fabric of my being, and putting myself in harm’s way to do good is also part of the fabric of my being,” she said.
The trip was a tough sell on some of Marty’s loved ones.
“Some members of my family would prefer that I did not go, and they’ve made that very, very clear, but they understand,” she said.
Marty will be with a team of WHO pros outfitted with the best gear and skilled in using it.
“We will be coming in with more resources – not just more quantity resources, but more quality resources for protection,” she said.
The biggest obstacle may be overcoming social and cultural barriers in the region.
“There is political unrest. There is a dissatisfaction and distrust of government, as well as of the people coming in to assist in this outbreak,” Marty said. Some aid workers have been attacked by people in the plagued area who believe the outsiders are spreading the virus. Some are in denial of ill family members, and are relying on “witchcraft” to help those who are sick.
Marty will call on her considerable communication skills to win the hearts – and health – of the people. She’ll have to. While airlines are screening passengers from the region for signs of illness, Ebola can take weeks to take hold. The World Health Organization believes it has identified the first Ebola death outside of Africa. A Saudi Arabian businessman died Wednesday of Ebola-like symptoms after returning from a trip to Sierra Leone.
Could the disease be a plane ride away from Miami?
“Inescapably, it is possible for an Ebola-infected individual, who does not yet manifest symptoms, to arrive in Miami,” Dr. Marty said, adding that infectious disease control methods are so advanced here, that it would be unlikely a broad spread could occur. Marty stressed that it is important for health care professionals to carefully question patients who may present with flu-like symptoms, asking them where they have been, what airlines they may have flown, to possibly be exposed to Ebola.
The growing epidemic in Africa, and the potential for it to spread to other nations, makes her impending mission all the more urgent and critical. She is expected to soon be on the ground, working from Nigeria with other WHO professionals to hold back the pandemic – keep it from going global.