GENEVA - Nigerian authorities are monitoring nearly 400 people for signs of Ebola after they came in contact with a Port Harcourt doctor who died of the disease but hid the fact that he had been exposed, a senior Nigerian health official said Thursday.
Dr. Abdulsalami Nasidi, project director at the Nigeria Center for Disease Control, said a lack of proven drugs or vaccines to treat Ebola has fostered a sense of "hopelessness." At least 18 people have been infected in the country, whose 174 million people make this Africa's most populous nation.
In an interview with Reuters in Geneva, Nasadi said more isolation wards were being opened in the oil industry hub, but he voiced confidence there would not be "many cases" there.
The Port Harcourt doctor, identified by local authorities as Iyke Enemuo, came in contact with an Ebola patient and continued treating others before his own Aug. 22 death. He also met scores of friends, relatives and medics, leaving about 60 people at high risk of infection, the World Health Organisation said Wednesday.
The doctor's wife, also a physician, along with a patient in the same hospital have been infected with Ebola, the WHO said.
"He violated our public health laws," Nasidi said, "by treating a patient with a highly pathogenic agent who revealed to him that he had contact with Ebola and didn't want to be treated in Lagos because he might be put in isolation."
Enemuo treated the patient "in secrecy outside hospital premises," Nasidi said. And when the doctor fell ill, "he did not reveal to his colleagues that he had contact with someone who contracted Ebola. He was taken to General Hospital, a private hospital that sees everybody.
"That is the only case that effectively escaped our surveillance network. We are paying now for it," Nasidi said.
He spoke on the sidelines of a two-day WHO experts meeting aimed at speeding development of Ebola drugs and vaccines.
The deadly virus can be spread by direct contact with body fluids and secretions of an infected person or during traditional burial rituals, the WHO said.
The latest outbreak has spread from Guinea to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. With its death toll at more than 1,900 people as of Wednesday, the outbreak has killed more people than all outbreaks since Ebola's discovery in 1976.
"People are living in a state of hopelessness seeing the disease has no cure and no vaccine but has great potential to spread," Nasidi said.
380 'contacts in our dragnet'
Nasidi said the Port Harcourt doctor was visited by friends and family in hospital, including some who "laid hands" on him.
"We have more than 380 of such contacts in our dragnet," he said. Those at high risk are being quarantined, and some 500 volunteers and health care workers are checking on all exposed people twice a day.
A 28-bed isolation ward for Ebola patients has opened in the city, which is home to many expatriate workers in major international oil companies.
Authorities did not forecast many more cases, and Nasidi said he was "hopeful."
He said the exposed contacts were being monitored, and most were near the end of the 21-incubation period. The disease starts with fever and muscle pain, followed by vomiting and diarrhea.
"A contact who has no symptoms doesn't transmit even if he has the virus," Nasidi said. "So this is why we are hopeful."
Supplies and vaccines needed
The United Nations said on Wednesday that $600 million in supplies would be needed to fight West Africa's Ebola outbreak.
"We must fight Ebola because there is huge anxiety for our populations along with significant social and economic consequences," Younoussa Ballo, secretary-general of Guinea's health ministry, told Reuters at Thursday's talks. "Research must be speeded up to have medicines to confront this epidemic."
Human safety trials are expected to begin this week on a vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline Plc and later this year on one from NewLink Genetics Corp. Johnson & Johnson said on Thursday that clinical trials of its vaccine would commence in early 2015, accelerated from late 2015 or early 2016.
NewLink founder Charles Link told Reuters in Geneva: "The clinical trials do take some time. Everybody is trying as hard and furiously as possible to move those trials forward as rapidly as possible with the regulations, scientific and ethical constraints.
"Just because we have the drugs, we haven't shown anything about their effectiveness so we have to do these initial studies before it would be appropriate to release them on any kind of broader scale," he said.
"So that is really what our group is here for and a number of other groups like ours, is to try to coordinate those activities to do things at speeds that haven't be done before."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said this week a federal contract worth up to $42.3 million would help accelerate testing of an experimental Ebola virus treatment being developed by privately held Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc.