The State Department "did nothing" to help the case of an American citizen who died in Liberia amid Ebola hysteria, unable either to get the treatment he needed or to leave the country, according to an aid worker on the ground.
The aid worker said they made repeated entreaties asking U.S. embassies to try to clear the way for 24-year-old Nathaniel Dennis to be transported from Liberia to Ghana for treatment, but officials were of no help, leaving the man stranded in Liberia, where he died, according to Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who has been in contact with the aid worker.
Dennis had repeatedly tested negative for Ebola, but Ghana had refused to allow him to be transported out of fear he might spread the infection within its borders. The incident is raising questions about the extent of Ebola fear and what treatment is available to Americans caught in the middle — even those, like Dennis, who don't have it.
"The death of Nathaniel Dennis raised great concern over those who might need medical care as a result of an illness or accident unrelated to Ebola," Mr. Hunter wrote in a letter last week raising the issue with fellow Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of a subcommittee looking into the U.S. response to the expanding Ebola crisis.
The State Department, however, says it was deeply involved in the case, and tried to get Dennis cleared to enter Ghana.
"The U.S. embassy in Ghana contacted a hospital in Ghana and urged it to admit Mr. Dennis for emergency medical treatment. The embassy was also in contact with Ghanaian authorities during Mr. Dennis' illness," said Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokeswoman.
After Ghanaian hospitals made clear they weren't admitting any patients from Liberia over fear of Ebola, the U.S. embassy tried to figure out a way to provide an emergency loan to cover the costs of a medical flight somewhere else.
But Dennis died before those arrangements could be finalized.
The Ebola outbreak has strained the global medical community's ability to respond, with the World Health Organization convening an emergency meeting Monday to discuss the ethics of tapping experimental treatments.
On Sunday, three missionaries who worked with infected patients were flown back to the U.S., where they were continuing a three-week quarantine, begun in Liberia, to make sure they had not contracted an infection. All three appeared to be healthy and showed no signs of infection, according to SIM USA, the missionary organization that sponsored them.
SIM released the name of one of the three, David Writebol, who is the husband of Nancy Writebol, one of two Americans who contracted Ebola and were flown from Africa last week to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for treatment.
Dennis, the American who died in Liberia, did not have Ebola. But he desperately needed treatment after having a seizure and falling into a coma. His family and American aid workers tried to get him transported to Ghana, where medical facilities are better, but that country refused him out of caution he might still be infected with Ebola.
One aid worker told Mr. Hunter that the State Department "did nothing from our perspective to assist this 24-year-old."
Dennis's sister, Natasha, told CBS News that the family also tried to get the State Department to help but were unsuccessful.
"No one tried to help us because everyone was too afraid," she told the network. "When we travel, we have confidence as American citizens. This experience has taken that confidence away for me."
Beyond Dennis's case, other Americans have been left in the dark about the health situation, Mr. Hunter said.
"My office has recently been in contact with an American in Monrovia who has relayed that there has been little to no contact between the U.S. embassy and Americans in the city," he wrote in his letter. "There is a large U.S. expatriate community in Liberia, and the lack of outreach and information has caused great unease in the community."
Ms. Jhunjhunwala said the embassies had "provided all possible consular assistance" to try to help Dennis.
"We express our deepest condolences to Nathaniel Dennis' family and friends," she said.
More broadly, the State Department has issued travel alerts to Americans in West African countries. The government doesn't track Americans traveling abroad out of privacy concerns but does have a Smart Traveler Enrollment Program for those who want to have advisories sent to them on the road.
Testifying last week to Congress, Bisa Williams, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the embassies in the affected countries have held "regular town hall meetings" to answer questions from embassy employees and U.S. citizens.
"Embassies in neighbor[ing] countries like Mali, Senegal and Togo have also held meetings to assess the capabilities of their host governments and to make contingency plans for embassy personnel and resident citizens in the event of an outbreak," Mr. Williams said.
Ken Isaacs, a vice president at Samaritan's Purse, an aid organization operating in West Africa, said the U.S. will have to take the lead on fighting the epidemic. But he told Congress last week that also means being prepared to handle American aid workers who become infected — something the country isn't prepared for.
"If we're going to expect people, including the CDC people, to go abroad and put their life on the line, there has to be some assurance that we are able to care for them if they are sick," he said. "That may be a regional health care facility that is exclusive to those citizens and those workers, or that may be a demonstrated capacity to get them home. But one airplane with one chamber to get them back is a bit of a slow process."
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