DALLAS (AFP, REUTERS) - US health officials scoured the Dallas area on Wednesday for people - including schoolchildren - who came in contact with a Liberian man diagnosed with Ebola, as it emerged a hospital mix-up saw him initially turned away.
Dallas authorities now fear that there may be a second case of infection of someone who came into contact with the patient. A man who claimed to be a family friend of the patient identified him as Thomas Eric Duncan.
The New York Times said that Duncan, in his mid-40s, helped transport a pregnant woman suffering from Ebola to a hospital in Liberia, where she was turned away for lack of space.
Duncan helped bring the woman back to her family’s home and carried her into the house, where she later died, the newspaper reported.
The second possible case is currently under strict monitoring, Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zachary Thompson told WFAA, a TV station in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in an interview on Wednesday morning.
"Let me be real frank to the Dallas County residents: The fact that we have one confirmed case, there may be another case that is a close associate with this particular patient," Thompson said.
"So this is real. There should be a concern, but it's contained to the specific family members and close friends at this moment."
More people may have been exposed to Duncan after he first sought treatment on Sept 25 because an apparent miscommunication among staff resulted in his release back into the community for several days, Texas hospital officials admitted.
Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola on US soil, flew from Liberia, the hardest-hit nation in West Africa's deadly Ebola outbreak, and arrived in Texas on Sept 20 to visit family. He fell ill four days later.
He went to the hospital the next day but was sent home because the medical team "felt clinically it was a low-grade common viral disease", said Mark Lester, executive vice-president of Texas Health Resources.
"He volunteered that he had travelled from Africa in response to the nurse operating the checklist and asking that question," Lester added. "Regretfully, that information was not fully communicated throughout the full team."
He came in contact with five schoolchildren before he returned via ambulance to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas on Sept 28, and was placed in strict isolation.
The schools are close to Vickery Meadows, a largely immigrant neighbourhood where the Ebola victim lived with relatives.
“These children have been identified and they are being monitored and the disease cannot be transmitted before having any symptoms, Texas Governor Rick Perry said.
Clara Sheard, grandmother of a seventh grader at one school, said that one of the students removed from school was a classmate of her granddaughter.
“When I met her to walk her home, she told me that they took one of the African students out of school and said that he couldn’t come back,” Sheard said.
Several students interviewed outside Emmet J. Conrad High School, where one student was sent home, said that they were aware of the Ebola epidemic in Africa but they were surprised to hear that the news is now happening so close to home.
“I didn’t get paranoid,” said Jazmin Edward, an 11th grader. “Our teachers were telling us to wash our hands and stay away from people, so that’s what I’ll do.”
The high school wrote to tell parents that the child was not showing any symptoms.
Up to 18 people have had contact with Duncan since he returned to the United States.
Ebola is spread through close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, and can be transmitted only when a patient is showing symptoms like fever, aches, bleeding, vomiting or diarrhea.
The incubation period for Ebola is between two and 21 days. Patients are not contagious until they start to have symptoms. Ebola can lead to massive bleeding and fatal organ failure.
A 10-member team of experts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has landed in Texas to assist the investigation.
While health experts say the public should not panic, medical personnel are on the lookout for more cases of Ebola on US soil.
Three crew members who worked in the ambulance that transported the patient have tested negative, but they will be monitored for 21 days, the City Of Dallas said.
As US officials scrambled to track down people, the worldwide death toll from Ebola jumped to 3,338 dead and 7,178 infected since the beginning of the year, the World Health Organisation said.