ATLANTA -- Two American aid workers who were infected with the deadly Ebola virus have been discharged from an Atlanta hospital, where the scene Thursday was festive and celebratory -- a stark contrast to the sterile, rushed atmosphere that marked their arrival nearly three weeks ago.
Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, and Nancy Writebol, 59, were infected while working at a missionary clinic in the West African nation of Liberia. They were given the experimental drug Zmapp and flown back to the United States for treatment. Brantly was released Thursday, and Writebol quietly walked out of the hospital's isolation unit two days earlier.
"Today is a miraculous day," Brantly said. He walked in to a news conference holding hands with his wife, and a line of workers from Emory University Hospital paraded in and stood behind him.
"I am thrilled to be alive, to be well, and to be reunited with my family," he said, choking up several times as he read a written statement. He and his wife then hugged and shook hands with each staff member. For some, it was the first direct contact they had with their patient. In the isolation unit, Brantly was behind glass and many people treating him wore protective gear.
Brantly and Writebol arrived in Georgia three days apart in a markedly different scene. Each was flown in a specially equipped jet, then driven in police-escorted ambulances. They entered the hospital -- Brantly walking, but Writebol wheeled on a stretcher -- through a back door as news helicopters hovered above. Wearing bulky medical suits, they were taken quickly to the isolation unit.
Brantly said that back in Liberia, he and his family first got word of the Ebola outbreak in March and "began preparing for the worst." His clinic saw its first patient in June.
Health workers took precautions as more patients came in, Brantly said, but on July 23, "I woke up feeling under the weather, and then my life took an unexpected turn as I was diagnosed with Ebola virus disease." His wife and children had flown back to the U.S. just a few days earlier. Brantly quarantined himself, then got sicker and weaker by the day and was flown out of Liberia on Aug. 2.
"Through the care of the Samaritan's Purse and SIM missionary team in Liberia, the use of an experimental drug, and the expertise and resources of the health care team at Emory University Hospital, God saved my life," he said, referencing the North Carolina-based aid groups for which he and Writebol worked.
But doctors and medical experts say it's not known whether the drug helped or whether Brantly and Writebol improved on their own, as has happened to others who have survived the disease. The treatment is so novel that it hasn't been tested in people.
"Frankly, we do not know whether it helped them, whether it made no difference or whether it theoretically delayed their recovery," Dr. Bruce Ribner, head of the infectious disease unit at the Atlanta hospital, said of the Zmapp treatment.
Ribner and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressed that the Americans' release did not pose a public health risk. Generally patients do not relapse and are not contagious once they've recovered, Ribner said. Neither patient's blood showed evidence of Ebola, the CDC said in a statement. Ebola is spread only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick people experiencing symptoms.
Still, Writebol was significantly weakened when released and was recuperating at an undisclosed location, her husband said in statement.
"She was greatly encouraged knowing that there were so many people around the world lifting prayers to God for her return to health," David Writebol said.
The Ebola outbreak has killed more than 1,300 people across West Africa. The death toll is rising most quickly in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization. At least 2,473 people have been sickened in the region -- more than the caseloads of all the previous two-dozen Ebola outbreaks combined.
The limited supply of Zmapp has been given to four other infected people: a Spanish missionary priest, who died, and three Liberian health care workers, who are said to be improving.