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Drug that helped other Ebola sufferers won't be in Nebraska Medical Center arsenal

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Dr. Rick Sacra

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Posted: Thursday, September 4, 2014 10:13 pm | Updated: 10:55 am, Fri Sep 5, 2014.

Nebraska Medical Center officials plan an 11 a.m. press conference to provide more details on their Ebola patient. Follow World-Herald staff writer Alissa Skelton on Twitter for updates.

Also read: American doctor with Ebola virus arrives at Nebraska Medical Center


Doctors and nurses at the Nebraska Medical Center will treat the American missionary who has the Ebola virus without the benefit of the drug credited with helping two other U.S. citizens recover from the deadly disease.

They will do so amid assurances from hospital and public health officials that the risk to the general public is low and that every possible safety precaution will be taken to ensure the virus is contained.

SIM, a North Carolina-based Christian mission organization, said Thursday that Dr. Rick Sacra, a medical missionary recently infected with Ebola while working in Liberia, will be flown Friday morning to the Nebraska Med Center for treatment in the hospital’s biocontainment unit. An ambulance escorted by multiple vehicles from the Omaha Police Department, Bellevue Police Department and Nebraska State Patrol transported Sacra to the hospital around 6:15 a.m.

Sacra, 51, was receiving excellent care in Liberia, SIM USA President Bruce Johnson said on the group’s website, but “the Nebraska Medical Center provides advanced monitoring equipment and wider availability of treatment options.”

The Nebraska Med Center houses the 10-bed Nebraska Biocontainment Patient Care Unit on the seventh floor of its University Tower. Hospital representatives say the $1 million unit, built in 2005, has special air-handling and sterilization features and is the largest of its kind in the United States. The rooms are virtually concrete-block boxes, they say.

Medical staff will wear protective equipment, such as full-coverage gowns, shoe covers, several layers of gloves, a mask for respiratory protection as well as a full face shield, said Dr. Angela Hewlett, the biocontainment unit’s associate medical director. The staff, she said, will take decontamination showers as well as hygienic showers before leaving the unit and will be paired with a partner to make sure their equipment is removed properly.

The unit also has secured access and a video phone communication system that can be used by family members or medical specialists. It is one of four such units in the country. The others are at Emory University in Atlanta, operated by the CDC; at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland; and at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana.

Ebola is spread via close contact with blood or other bodily fluids from a person infected with the disease. More than 3,500 confirmed or probable Ebola cases have been reported, mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the World Health Organization says, and more than 1,900 people have died.

SIM says it sent Sacra, who is from Massachusetts, to Liberia early in August to assist during the relocation of missionaries who needed a break in the Ebola fight.

More than 30 health-care providers who have undergone extensive training will treat the patient in Omaha, said Dr. Phil Smith, the biocontainment unit’s medical director. “We actually have had a number of individuals volunteer since Ebola became an epidemic agent in Africa,” he said. The group, Smith said, is “one of the main reasons why we feel we’re able to provide care in a safe environment.”

Smith wouldn’t confirm the patient is Sacra, citing patient confidentiality concerns.

Officials with the Nebraska Med Center and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services agreed to open the biocontainment unit to Sacra after getting a call on Tuesday from U.S. government officials. They first consulted with representatives from the U.S. State Department, Nebraska and Douglas County health departments, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the staff at Emory University, where the other two Americans with Ebola were treated.

“Not only will this patient receive world-class care, but all of our patients, students, faculty and staff will be completely protected and safe during this entire episode of care,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Added Dr. Joseph Acierno, the state’s chief medical officer: “We believe that the risk is minimal, and there’s not a reason for people to be fearful of what’s going on.”

Some people on Twitter Thursday night questioned the decision to bring Sacra to Omaha.

“See that’s the thing. Minimal risk is still risk. In life unnecessary risks usually are avoided.”

San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., the manufacturer of the experimental drug used to treat medical missionaries Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, says the supply of the drug has been exhausted. Smith said he understands that it will take one to two months to produce enough of the drug, called ZMapp, to treat another patient.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced this week that it will provide $25 million and other help to allow the company to make more ZMapp.

Dr. Mark Rupp, the medical director of the medical center’s Department of Infection Control and Epidemiology, said doctors have other options for treating someone with Ebola. One possibility, he said, is providing the patient with what’s called passive immunity — taking antibodies from the blood products of the surviving missionaries and giving them to Sacra. The medical center hasn’t contacted the survivors, he said, and doesn’t yet know their blood types or the blood type of the incoming patient.

“You’d have to have compatiblity of those blood types,” he said. “That would be the first hurdle to clear.”

Other Ebola drugs to be considered have been tested in primates or test tubes but not humans, Rupp said.

“We will be in consultation with the FDA as well as representatives from these (drug) companies and experts that are doing this type of viral research to figure out if there’s something that would make the most sense that we could test,” he said.

Rupp noted that ZMapp also was given to a Spanish physician with Ebola who later died.

The Douglas County Health Department will open an Ebola information line to answer the public’s questions about the disease starting at 9 a.m. today. The line will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. The phone number is 402-444-3400.

Rupp said treating patients is the med center’s job.

“Obviously, these health-care providers were on a mission in Africa,” he said. "Our mission is to care for patients, and we’re going to do that, and we’re going to do that as safely and as effectively as possible.”

World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1109,,

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