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Infectious Disease

2nd American infected with Ebola amid fears of outbreak spread to African megacity

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A man reads a local newspaperson a street with the headline Ebola Virus kills Liberian in Lagos, in Lagos Nigeria, Saturday, July 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

A second American aid worker stationed at a Liberian hospital tested positive for the Ebola virus on Sunday, a week after an infected man brought the disease by plane to Nigeria.  

Nancy Writebol, a worker with allied aid group Serving in Mission (SIM), is in stable and serious condition, according to an official at Samaritan's Purse. She is the second American infected at the SIM-run hospital on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

The humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse has an Ebola care center at the same location. Dr. Ken Brantly, the 33-year-old medical director for the care center, was previously confirmed as infected with the virus.

"We are hopeful and prayerful," Ken Issacs, a vice president of Samaritan’s Purse, told The Associated Press by telephone from the group headquarters in Boone, North Carolina. He said the doctor quickly recognized the symptoms and sought speedy treatment.

According to Isaacs, Writebol, who had been working as a  hygienist decontaminating those entering and leaving the Ebola care area at the hospital, was showing full symptoms of the virus.

Both Americans have been isolated and are under intensive treatment. On Monday, Samaritan's Purse released an update on the condition of the two Americans.

"Both are in serious condition today," said Melissa Strickland, spokesperson for Samaritan's Purse. "Our team is continuing to provide them with intensive medical support."

Isaacs, the Christian relief group's vice president of program and government relations, said the fact that health care workers have been infected underscores the severity of the West Africa outbreak that has killed hundreds in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

"It's been a shock to everyone on our team to have two of our players get pounded with the disease," said Isaacs, adding health ministries in those poor nations are challenged to respond. "Our team is frankly getting tired."

Health workers are at serious risk of contracting the disease, which spreads through contact with bodily fluids.

On July 20th, a Liberian man infected with Ebola collapsed upon arrival at the airport in Lagos, Africa’s largest city with 21 million people. Patrick Sawyer, a consultant for the Liberian Ministry of Finance, reportedly did not show symptoms when he boarded the plane, but by the time he arrived in Nigeria, he was vomiting and had diarrhea. He was immediately detained by health authorities upon arrival and doctors from the Lagos University Teaching Hospital confirmed his death from Ebola on Friday.

The plane Sawyer arrived on was also stopped in Lome, Togo, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Nearly 50 other passengers on the flight are being monitored for signs of Ebola, but are not being kept in isolation, said an employee at Nigeria's Ministry of Health, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The fact that the traveler from Liberia could board an international flight also raised new fears that other passengers could take the disease beyond Africa due to weak inspection of passengers and the fact Ebola's symptoms are similar to other diseases.

Officials in the country of Togo, where the sick man's flight had a stopover, also went on high alert after learning that Ebola could possibly have spread to a fifth country.

Screening people as they enter the country may help slow the spread of the disease, but it is no guarantee Ebola won't travel by airplane, according to Dr. Lance Plyler, who heads Ebola medical efforts in Liberia for Samaritan's Purse.

"Unfortunately the initial signs of Ebola imitate other diseases, like malaria or typhoid," he said.

Doctors say health screens could be effective, but Ebola has a variable incubation period of between two and 21 days and cannot be diagnosed on the spot.

According to the WHO, Ebola has a death rate between 50 and 90 percent. There are no specific treatments for the disease— treatment is primarily supportive and includes balancing fluids and electrolytes to counter dehydration.

For those infected who survive, recovery could be quick and total, or prolonged with long-term problems including joint pain, muscle pain, skin peeling and hair loss.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.