PARK SLOPE — The Ebola outbreak is half a world away for most Americans, but one Park Slope couple recently had a firsthand brush with the deadly virus — and they say their experience is a cautionary tale about how easily Ebola could spread worldwide.
Bisi Ideraabdullah and her husband, Mahmoud, spent Monday breathing a sigh of relief. Three weeks had passed since Mahmoud sat within several feet of a man in Liberia who later died of Ebola. People who've had such an exposure aren't required to notify health officials, but it's recommended that they quarantine themselves for 21 days to see if symptoms develop.
Mahmoud is now in the clear.
"It's been very emotional for me," Mahmoud said of the past three weeks, which he spent in Brooklyn on "self-quarantine," limiting contact with other people unless absolutely necessary. "I've just been counting the days."
Bisi is executive director of Imani House, Inc., a nonprofit headquartered on Fifth Avenue and St. Mark's Place that operates a health clinic outside Monrovia, Liberia.
Mahmoud, the clinic's program manager, just returned from a six-month stint at the facility, which recently lost two staff members to Ebola. The disease is spread by direct contact with the bodily fluids of a sick patient.
Mahmoud was due to fly home to the U.S. on Sept. 8 when he heard rumors that a registrar at the Imani House clinic had been treating an Ebola-stricken neighbor in his community — a violation of clinic policy. Though Mahmoud was poised to get on a plane back to New York, he felt he couldn't leave without investigating.
Mahmoud couldn't reach the staffer on the phone, so he went to visit him at his home just hours before his flight was set to depart. Though the registrar said he felt fine and had no symptoms of the virus, Mahmoud avoided touching anything and sat several feet away from the registrar, in an open doorway, he said.
Mahmoud got on his flight after telling the registrar to get tested at what was then Monrovia's only testing facility. A few days after Mahmoud returned to the U.S., Bisi and Mahmoud got word that the registrar had been telling people he had tested negative for Ebola.
On Sept. 18, Mahmoud and Bisi received a horrifying update. A clinic staff member in Liberia who spent her days sitting next to the registrar had tested positive for Ebola. She died within days of the diagnosis. Bisi said she "literally collapsed" when she heard the news, and rushed to shut the clinic down and quarantine its staff immediately.
They soon learned that the registrar who Mahmoud had visited had misled his coworkers about his health and continued to show up to work, infecting them. They later found out that he tried to get tested for the virus but was turned away from the testing facility because he wasn't showing symptoms. He died on Sept. 21.
Mahmoud, though he had no symptoms, immediately put himself on quarantine inside the couple's Park Slope home.
“I became very fearful,” Mahmoud said. “We didn’t know if we had encountered Ebola in the [registrar's] house.”
Health care workers are only required to notify federal health officials if they've had direct contact with the bodily fluids of an Ebola patient, according to the Centers for Disease Control website.
The NYC Department of Health said that while health officials in the city are mandated to report any suspected Ebola cases in New York, civilians are not required to notify officials even if they've been in close contact with someone in another country who they believe has Ebola symptoms, a spokeswoman said.
Though Mahmoud is relieved to have made it through the 21-day incubation period — which the CDC says is the maximum time the virus takes to show symptoms — the couple is grieving for their adopted homeland of Liberia, where they lived for 12 years.
Ebola has now claimed more than 3,000 lives in West Africa, with roughly 1,800 dead in Liberia, according to the latest figures.
Bisi is now scrambling to raise money for supplies that will keep clinic workers safe and help battle the fast-moving outbreak. Mahmoud plans to return next month to deliver the supplies.
"We're trying to raise money and awareness," Bisi said. "We're the only clinic open in that area."
She added, "We have 22 staff there. They've become family. We don't have the heart to abandon them.”
The Imani House clinic — which serves mostly women and children, offering prenatal care, vaccinations for newborns, and treatment for maladies like diarrhea and malaria — isn't equipped to treat Ebola patients, but the Liberian government has requested that the clinic set up an isolation unit where suspected Ebola patients can be quarantined. To do so, clinic staff will need to quickly renovate an unused building on the property.
Liberian officials have also asked Imani House to find and ship two ambulances to transport Ebola patients.
Among the supplies Bisi is racing to buy is hazmat gear for the clinic staff, who had been using rain suits to protect themselves from the disease.
Monrovia's population is roughly 2 million people, but it has fewer than 400 beds to treat Ebola patients. Liberia's civil war destroyed the healthcare system and there are now only about 50 doctors in the entire country, Mahmoud said.
The lack of treatment options, coupled with a culture that values strong family connections and helping others in need, means many Liberians stay at home when they fall ill and end up infecting their own loved ones, Mahmoud said.
The Ideraabdullahs said Mahmoud's brush with the disease was a scary reminder of how easily the deadly virus could enter the United States.
Mahmoud was screened when he left Liberia — he was checked for fever and filled out a questionnaire about his health. But there were no such measures in place during his layover stop in Brussels or at his final destination at New York's JFK Airport, where dozens of his fellow passengers arrived from Liberia and many continued on to other destinations in the U.S.
“I was a little surprised,” Mahmoud said. “I would have thought that with the crisis as it exists in West Africa, there would have been [screening.] In this epidemic, it wouldn’t hurt as an extra precaution if they wanted to make sure it didn’t spread into the United States.”
A CDC spokesman said more than 100 CDC staff are in affected countries helping screen departing passengers. But passengers arriving at JFK aren't screened unless airline personnel alert CDC staff to do so.
To get more information about the work Imani House is doing in Liberia, or to make a donation toward their Ebola-fighting efforts, go to its website.