ATLANTA — As one of few Ebola survivors with medical expertise, Kent Brantly seems keenly aware of the position his painful experience has put him in. He hasn't spoken yet about his plans, but spent much of his first public appearance pleading for help for countries still struggling with the virus.
"I am forever thankful to God for sparing my life and am glad for any attention my sickness has attracted to the plight of West Africa in the midst of this epidemic," Brantly said Thursday before leaving Emory University Hospital, where he and a medical missionary colleague spent three weeks in an isolation unit as they recovered.
"Please continue to pray for Liberia and the people of West Africa, and encourage those in positions of leadership and influence to do everything possible to bring this Ebola outbreak to an end," he added. Then he hugged all the doctors and nurses at the news conference, a very public display of affection telegraphing the message that Ebola survivors are not contagious.
With the world watching, Brantly could continue sending these messages from the United States or even return to Africa.
Bruce Ribner, who runs Emory's infectious disease unit, said he would not discourage an Ebola survivor from treating those with the disease, since they've effectively been vaccinated against this strain and there is no danger of a relapse.
"There would be no concerns and in fact the likelihood is we would anticipate immunity to this virus so that they would probably not be at risk for infection if they were caring for patients with Ebola virus disease during this outbreak," Ribner said.
The same goes for Nancy Writebol, Brantly's missionary colleague, who was quietly released Tuesday. They are effectively vaccinated against the current strain of the Ebola virus, should recover completely, and no one should fear being in contact with them, Ribner said.
"My family and I will now be going away for a period of time to reconnect, decompress and continue to recover physically and emotionally. After I have recovered a little more and regained some of my strength, we will look forward to sharing more of our story," said Brantly, visibly thinner than he appeared in an image circulated earlier by his charity organization, the North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse.
Writebol's son, Jeremy Writebol, said in a telephone interview that his mother is able to move around, eat and drink normally. His parents are considering their next steps, he said.
Brantly's reappearance was celebratory, in contrast to his arrival in an ambulance under police escort three weeks earlier, when he shuffled into the hospital wearing a bulky white hazardous materials suit. Both patients were discharged after their blood tested clean of the virus, which is spread only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick people experiencing symptoms.
After Brantly, 33, and Writebol, 59, were infected while working with Ebola victims in Liberia, their charity organizations, Samaritan's Purse and SIM, reached out to top infectious disease experts for help.
Working connections, they obtained one of only five courses available worldwide of an experimental drug known as Zmapp, and Brantly and Writebol split the doses before being evacuated to Atlanta. The other four were later given to a Spanish priest, who died, and three doctors in Africa, who have been improving.
Brantly's doctors cautioned that it's unclear whether the drug or a blood transfusion he got from a young Ebola survivor in Africa helped, hurt or made no difference at all.
"They are the very first individuals to have received this treatment and frankly we do not know," Ribner said.
Brantly didn't take questions Thursday, but he did briefly describe his experience in Liberia, where they saw their first Ebola patient in June. Soon, many more arrived.
He said his team took all the precautions they could. Three days after his wife and children returned to the U.S., Brantly woke up feeling sick and was diagnosed with the disease. For nine days, he prayed for faith.
"I serve a faithful God who answers prayers," he said.
There is a huge gap between the treatment these Americans got at Emory, where five infectious disease experts and 21 nurses provided rigorous care, and West Africa, where the virus has killed more than 1,300 people and counting, and even such basics as sterile fluids can be in short supply.
Ribner insisted that bringing them to Atlanta "was the right decision" and said the hospital could decide to take more Ebola patients on a case by case basis.
"We cannot let our fears dictate our actions," Ribner said.
The treatment of these two Americans may already lead to better care for Ebola patients anywhere. For example, their doctors now believe common fluid-replacement measures may need more nutrients to help patients recover. Emory's team has begun sharing its findings with other doctors, and hopes to publish in a medical journal.
At least 2,473 people have been sickened in this outbreak — more than the caseloads of all the previous two-dozen Ebola outbreaks combined, according to the World Health Organization.