MINNEAPOLIS — An outbreak of Ebola in West Africa may seem like a distant threat to many Americans, but it is causing some to cancel travel plans and stirring fear in Minnesota, home to thousands of Liberian immigrants.
The potentially Ebola-related death last week of a Liberian government official whose wife and children live in Minnesota has heightened concerns and inspired a fundraising drive to send medical supplies to Liberia.
State health officials also have been meeting with community members to talk about recognizing the disease and how to travel safely, as Minnesota is home to about 17 percent of the United States’ Liberian population.
More than 670 people have died during the recent outbreak in West Africa. But no cases of Ebola have been confirmed in the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it poses little risk to the general U.S. population.
“It is killing people like crazy,” said Prudence McCabe, a Minnesota resident of Liberian heritage. “Everyone is trying to call family members … we are trying to send money right away. … All we can do is pray and be helpful.”
Nigerian health officials reported that Liberian government official Patrick Sawyer died from the disease after traveling from Liberia to Nigeria. The World Health Organization has not yet confirmed the cause.
Sawyer was a former Minnesota resident and naturalized American whose wife and children still live in suburban Minneapolis.
His wife, Decontee Sawyer, told The Associated Press that he had planned to come home for two of his three daughters’ birthdays next month.
The Centers for Disease Control has said the risk of Ebola spreading to the United States is remote. The isolation and infection control measures that are standard in this country would likely snuff out such a possibility, it said.
However, the CDC sent an alert to U.S. doctors on July 28, updating them on the West Africa outbreak, reminding them to ask patients with Ebola-like symptoms about recent travel, and to isolate and test patients they think might be infected.
The Minnesota Department of Health said officials are providing information to health providers, West African community members and local West African media. Officials said they are planning community meetings and advertisements promoting travel safety.
Asked what visitors from West Africa should do if they become sick, Dr. Aaron DeVries, Medical Director of the state Health Department’s infectious diseases division, said they should go to their regular doctor.
Sakui Malakpa, a professor at the University of Toledo who was in Minnesota over the weekend, said he has a ticket to travel to Liberia on Aug. 12, but is considering postponing his trip.
“All of us Liberians are very, very worried about people, because this stuff is so infectious and it’s very deadly,” he said. “The last thing we want is for people here to be worried about us going there.”
Zubah Kpanaku, Chairman of the Board for the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, said his wife is in Liberia, helping build a house for her family. He said she is a registered nurse, so she knows how to protect herself, but she still may try to come back to Minnesota sooner than planned.
Patrick Sawyer didn’t make it back to the U.S., where his wife of six years lives.
Both were active in Minnesota’s community of Liberian transplants, and Patrick was especially passionate about social justice and was driven to help make his native country a better place, Decontee Sawyer said.
Patrick Sawyer, who held a Master’s in Public Health Administration, returned to Liberia soon after they married in 2008 and worked on economic development for the Finance Ministry, his wife said.
“He said Liberia needs him. He was all about social justice and change and a better democracy,” she said. “Having lived in the U.S. for many years, he wanted that for Liberia too.”
The separation was a strain on the couple, and Decontee Sawyer said she had complained to him about feeling like a single mother to their three girls. He typically made it home every six months — flying from Monrovia to Minneapolis via New York City — but Decontee Sawyer said his last visit was about a year ago and coincided with a celebration of Liberia’s independence.
Meanwhile, Liberian community members in Minnesota said they’ve raised more than $700, which could go toward masks, gloves and other supplies that will help prevent people from getting infected, or used to help another group transport supplies.