I left Uganda on New Year’s Eve 2007 after a two-week adventure vacation, passing through London, then Iowa, on my way home to Colorado. I had no idea I was traveling the world while infected with a deadly virus.
The symptoms began enroute – a headache, a rash, nausea – but for five days I lived my normal life, enjoying my family, going to Starbucks, shaking people’s hands. All the while, I was carrying this horrible disease at the height of its contagious period.
I’m the only person known so far to have imported an Ebola-like disease to the United States uncontrolled. I had contracted the Marburg virus from a bat cave in Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of Uganda’s most popular tourist attractions. In the medical world, Marburg is known as Ebola’s “kissing cousin.” While different molecularly, the viruses infect victims in the same way and cause the same symptoms. Both result in fatality rates of 60 percent to 90 percent and run hot through a community – leaving sorrow and pain in their path. There is no vaccine or cure for either.
During my first days back in the United States, my body was slowly shutting down from multi-system organ failure. I visited my doctor and urgent care, complaining of a splitting headache, stomach rash, fever, nausea and confusion. I was sent home with painkillers and nausea prescriptions.
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As my liver, kidney, lungs, gallbladder and pancreas slowed, I went to restaurants and meetings and visited my parents. On my third visit to the doctor, I collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.
More than 220 health care professionals treated me over 12 days, offering excellent supportive care and compassion. But they couldn’t diagnose my problem. I was tested for a variety of things, but none of the tests were positive. Doctors treated me with fluids and antibiotics, and, surrounded by my husband and siblings, my body was able to fight off the illness that was shutting down all of my organs. After I started to recover, I was sent home with no clarity on what had brought me so close to death.
Twelve months later, I read about a Dutch woman who died of Marburg after visiting the same bat cave I had been to in Uganda. The World Health Organization investigated and determined that the bats carried the virus. My infectious disease doctor retested me, and jackpot! A year prior, unknown to me and my medical team, I had battled and survived Marburg – even though I hadn’t touched or been bitten by a bat. It is still a mystery how I and the Dutch woman contracted Marburg.
After receiving my delayed diagnosis, I was panicked to think that I might have unwittingly transmitted the Marburg virus to another person during the weeks that I was contagious. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said no secondary cases were identified in either my situation or the Dutch woman’s.
Thanks to safety protocols in our hospitals, the fact that I cover my mouth and wash my hands a lot, and by the grace of God, the potential outbreak stopped with me. But the fact remains that I contracted Marburg in Africa and brought it home with me on a plane. I wasn’t in quarantine, and I interacted with hundreds of other people while contagious. Epidemiologists believe Marburg and Ebola are transmitted between humans via bodily fluids, not through airborne particles, and my experience supports that.
Still, there is reason to be scared. In Africa, Ebola is moving from person to person, crossing borders, and has already killed more than 700 people with hundreds more in quarantine. Health care workers are also falling victim. A lack of an understanding of how to prevent the spread of this most deadly Ebola outbreak is feeding fears that the disease will continue to spread for months to come.
But the story in the United States is different. While Americans aren’t exempt from contracting Marburg or Ebola, our odds of survival are better than people living in rural villages. We have access to more sophisticated health infrastructure, better information about the spread of disease and practices that more effectively contain infections.
We’ve seen that system at work for Kent Brantly, a doctor who contracted Ebola in Liberia, whose condition has improved significantly after receiving an experimental serum and being flown to Atlanta for treatment. If the Ebola virus is exported to the United States, as the Marburg virus was by me, I don’t fear an outbreak here. Our health care system is prepared. I’m proof of that.
Michelle Barnes works as an interim executive in the nonprofit sector focusing on turnarounds and complex transitions. She lives outside of Golden, Colo.