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American Ebola survivor calls the outbreak 'a fire straight from the pit of hell'

Dr. Kent Brantly
Dr. Kent Brantly
Jessica McGowan

Kent Brantly has a unique perspective on the Ebola epidemic: he has both worked as a doctor to treat the virus in patients and he is a victim of the disease, having contracted Ebola in July while working as a medical missionary in Liberia.

Today, he testified in DC before a senate senate committee on the West African outbreak. Here are highlights from his speech:

On the horror of having Ebola

On July 23, I started to feel ill. Three days later, I learned that I had tested positive for Ebola Virus Disease. I became a patient, and I came to understand firsthand what my own patients had suffered. I was isolated from my family, and I was unsure if I would ever see them again. Even though I knew most of my caretakers, I could see nothing but their eyes through their protective goggles when they came to treat me. I experienced the humiliation of losing control of my bodily functions and faced the horror of vomiting blood-a sign of the internal bleeding that could have eventually led to my death.

How the world woke up to Ebola after he was infected

This unprecedented outbreak began nine months ago but received very little attention from the international community until the events of mid-July when my friend and colleague, Nancy Writebol, and I became infected. Since that time, there has been intense media attention and therefore increased awareness of the situation on the ground in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and neighboring countries.

The response, however, is still unacceptably out-of-step with the size and scope of the problem now before us.

What it's like to treat Ebola patients

Treating Ebola patients is not like caring for other patients. It is grueling work. The personal protective equipment (PPE) we wore in the Ebola Treatment Unit becomes excruciatingly hot, with temperatures inside the suit reaching up to 115 degrees. It cannot be worn for more than an hour and a half. Because of the elaborate safety protocols involved in treating an Ebola patient, each one takes an average of 30 minutes of time from a team of three to five people. It is easy to see that a significant influx of medical personnel will be needed to adequately care for the thousands of people that epidemiologists now are predicting will fall victim to the disease in the coming weeks.

On using military to respond to the Ebola virus

The use of our military is a legitimate and defensible request because if we do not do something to stop this outbreak now, it quickly could become a matter of U.S. national security-whether that means a regional war that gives terrorist groups like Boko Haram a foothold in West Africa or the spread of the disease into America. Fighting those kinds of threats would require more from the Department of Defense than what I am asking for today.

Why the outbreak got out of control in Liberia

The laboratory we used to confirm Ebola Virus Disease in patients was 45 minutes away and inadequately staffed. A patient would arrive at our center in the afternoon, and their blood specimen would not be collected until the following morning. We would receive results later that night at the earliest. This means that the turn-around time to positively identify Ebola cases was anywhere from 12 to 36 hours after the blood was drawn. If a patient is not infected with the virus, that can be a life-threatening delay...

These laboratory delays can have an even greater-and deadlier- consequence. The longer it takes to confirm a positive result, the longer an Ebola- infected patient is left in the "suspected" side of the isolation unit. Every precaution is taken to protect people in that part of the facility from cross-contamination, but there is always the potential that those without the disease can become infected if they are in close proximity to an Ebola-positive person.

On receiving the experimental treatment ZMapp

I am deeply grateful to the personnel at Mapp Biopharmaceuticals who even before this outbreak had devoted their lives to combatting Ebola.

I hope that the devastating impact of the current epidemic will result in new discoveries for treatments and vaccines in the future, but we cannot wait for a magic bullet to halt the spread of Ebola in West Africa. The current epidemic is beyond anything we have ever seen, and it is time to think outside of the box.

The challenges ahead

Historically, Ebola outbreaks have been contained through the identification and isolation of suspected cases, and this has worked extremely well to stop the disease. Today, however, the number of cases and rate of transmission are surpassing the ability of these traditional interventions to bring the situation under control. Intensive medical care is important, but it is given only to patients in isolation units. We know that the virus is being spread primarily by those who are unwilling or unable to go to an Ebola Treatment Unit...

The World Health Organization has laid out a roadmap similar to what I have just described, but they are so bound up by bureaucracy that they have been painfully slow and ineffective in this response. Their recommendations for home care were made August 28, and I am not aware of any significant progress in the implementation of their plan to date. It is imperative that the U.S. take the lead instead of relying on other agencies...

Many have used the analogy of a fire burning out of control to describe this unprecedented Ebola outbreak. Indeed it is a fire-a fire straight from the pit of hell. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that the vast moat of the Atlantic Ocean will keep the flames away from our shores. Instead, we must mobilize the resources needed to keep entire nations from being reduced to ashes.

Learn more about why this Ebola outbreak became the worst we've ever seen in our 2-minute Vox explainer