The small but tight-knit West African community in Sonoma County is scrambling for information on relatives and loved ones back home in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea as the worst Ebola outbreak in history has killed more than 800 and sparked an international health crisis.
The American Red Cross is deploying specialists to the region, a Sonoma County Red Cross official said, as a second American health care worker infected with the often deadly virus prepared to be evacuated to Atlanta for medical treatment.
Jackson Duoa, a retired Sonoma Developmental Center nurse, said he has been following the news from Liberia, where his sister, cousins, aunts and uncles live near the capital, Monrovia. So far, they have not contracted the disease that causes hemorrhagic fever and kills at least 60 percent of the people it infects in Africa.
“I try and get in contact with them every day,” said Duoa, 61, who has lived in Santa Rosa for the past 17 years with his wife and seven children. “I am worried about them. There’s not much you can do but listen to the news and hope for the best.”
Duoa said he was last in Monrovia in June, and he did not develop Ebola symptoms. The disease has a three-week incubation period and is only spread through close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
The latest outbreak started in Guinea in March and quickly spread to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, some of the poorest countries in the world, where even basic health care is widely lacking.
Federal agents at U.S. airports are watching travelers from Africa for flu-like symptoms that could be tied to the recent Ebola outbreak, health officials said Monday.
If a passenger is suspected of carrying the virus, they would be quarantined immediately and evaluated by medical personnel, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provided the additional training to local airports.
“There is always the possibility that someone with an infectious disease can enter the United States,” CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said Monday. “The public health concern is whether it would spread, and, if so, how quickly.”
Health officials say the threat to Americans remains relatively small, even as a second American missionary prepared to return home for treatment. Nancy Writebol was expected to be flown today to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, where she will join another U.S. aid worker, Dr. Kent Brantly, in a special isolation unit.
The two Americans worked at an Ebola clinic in Liberia, where health care workers are among the most vulnerable because of their close contact with patients.
Many of the roughly 100 West Africans in Sonoma County are health care professionals, Duoa said, and can provide much needed information and comfort to relatives in their homeland. Last month, Liberian expatriates from all over the Bay Area gathered in Petaluma to celebrate their nation’s independence day. The Ebola crisis was on everyone’s mind, Duoa said.
“Every one of us has some connection back there,” he said. “We were all talking about it. We know how the health care system works there. Hospitals can’t handle the crisis.”
Rugi Holten, a nurse at Brookdale Place Chanate in Santa Rosa, said she talks to her mother in Sierra Leone every day. She said family members have told her that health care workers in Sierra Leone are going house to house to find and quarantine infected people. Like other Sonoma County West Africans, so far her family back home is fine.