The chief doctor who has been leading the fight against the Ebola virus epidemic in Sierra Leone has contracted the disease himself, officials from the country's Ministry of Health said.
Sheik Umar Khan, 39, was credited with treating more than 100 victims of the virus in West Africa during the deadliest Ebola outbreak ever recorded. He is now being treated by the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders in a facility in Kailahun in Sierra Leone. Organization spokesperson Sandra Murillo, citing patient-doctor confidentiality, could not disclose Khan's condition.
More than 1,000 cases and 660 deaths in West Africa have been reported to date, according to the World Health Organization. The outbreak has affected Sierra Leone, Liberia and New Guinea. Sierra Leone is the epicenter of the epidemic with 454 cases recorded thus far, according to Doctors Without Borders.
Khan was one of more than 200 staff members in Sierra Leone working to combat the epidemic. Even before he caught the virus, he was worried about the close proximity to the virus.
"I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life," he told Reuters in late June. "Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk."
Sierra Leone Health Minister Miatta Kargbo called Khan a national hero, Reuters reported, and said she would "do anything and everything in my power to ensure he survives."
Three nurses who worked in the same Ebola treatment center as Khan are believed to have died from the disease.
Ebola is transmitted through contact — usually of bodily fluids like vomit, blood, urine or feces. The virus can infect people even after death, often resulting in the infection of morticians or mourners who come in direct contact with the body, according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Ebola can also be transmitted through fruit bats or by the consumption of infected bush meat such as primates. Ebola has up to a 90% fatality rate, according to the WHO. There is currently no cure for Ebola and no vaccine to prevent it.
WHO, the local governments and Doctors Without Borders have been struggling to contain the outbreak, ramping up their efforts in case management, infection prevention, and control and public awareness of the virus. Local workers are trained in these protocol in addition to safe burials, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said.
Fauci said there is a likelihood that the virus will spread to other countries despite the government and organizations' efforts.
"Previous outbreaks were usually in very rural areas, so they were geographically self-contained," Fauci said. "These (epidemics) are spreading to the cities."