MIAMI (CBSMiami) – An infectious disease expert from Florida International University who was asked to join an international team of experts working to contain an outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa left Miami on Thursday for Nigeria to work with a World Health Organization outbreak alert and response team.
In over 30 years of practicing medicine, Dr. Aileen Marty spent 25 serving as a Navy doctor specializing in tropical medicine, infectious disease pathology and disaster medicine. Officials say Marty’s team will focus on threat analysis and risk assessment, two specialties at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
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 in an interview prior to her departure. “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.
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.
WHO officials said Friday the outbreak’s had killed 1,145 people in four countries across West Africa. At least 2,127 cases have been reported in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.