26-year-old nurse Nina Pham confirmed as first case of US-transmitted Ebola

26-year-old Nina Pham, a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian, is the first US-transmitted case of Ebola. (Photo credit: WFAA)

Last week, Thomas Eric Duncan — a Texas man who contracted Ebola while travelling overseas — died, becoming the first fatality as a result of the virus on US soil. Questions are already being raised about doctors’ handling of Duncan’s case: Duncan first became symptomatic on September 26th when he arrived in the ER of Texas Health Presbyterian with a 103-degree fever, but was inexplicably sent home even after doctors were notified that Duncan had recently returned from Africa. Only upon his second visit to the hospital on September 28th was Duncan diagnosed with Ebola and quarantined for treatment; the circumstances of his treatment significantly enhanced the likelihood of an American outbreak.

In the wake of this failure in proper care, the CDC had placed over 50 people who had come into close contact with Duncan under supervision. Today, the CDC reports that a nurse who worked in critical care at Texas Presbyterian Health has contracted Ebola. Although officials did not identify the nurse, family members have since revealed to media that the nurse is 26-year-old Nina Pham.


Pham graduated from Texas Christian University in 2010, and has been a nurse since she graduated. Yesterday, officials reported that Pham began experiencing symptoms late last week and was placed in immediate quarantine. She is now in stable condition after being diagnosed on Sunday with the virus.

Ebola is a haemorrhagic disease that targets endothelial cells — the cells that line the inner layer of blood vessels — and is fatal in approximately 50% of cases. The speed of infection and the lack of any approved drugs in the cure of the virus — along with a healthy dose of misinformation — have led to panic over the disease in the States. A recent poll shows that 41% of Americans lack confidence in the US government’s capacity to control an Ebola outbreak, while one-third are afraid that they or a family member are at risk for contraction.

However, it is important to emphasize that the risk of an American outbreak is still considered to be low for the average American: Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids (blood, sweat, urine, feces, semen, etc) of a symptomatic patient. Thus, those at highest risk for contracting Ebola are caregivers, and in the States, widespread access to sophisticated diagnosis and patient isolation technology significantly reduces the likelihood of outbreak, while availability of modern medical treatments maximize the chances of Americans to survive the infection.

In Africa, however, the lack of international aid have allowed the disease to claim thousands of lives for the last four decades. Over the past seven months, a single Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia has infected nearly 8,500 people and claimed over 4,000 lives; yet, Americans have been largely apathetic to this outbreak. That our disinterest gave way to panic only when a White American doctor contracted the disease is telling. That we remain resistant to caring about Ebola patients because they are “out of sight” and therefore “out of mind” is alarming. That politicians — including former South Carolina GOP Executive Director — feel no qualms advocating the execution of patients at risk of transmitting Ebola is terrifying.


This past weekend, thousands of activists journeyed to Ferguson, Missouri in the latest #BlackLivesMatter protest over the police shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. While this ongoing national conversation over the value of Black lives in America, perhaps it is time to connect the dots globally.

Today, we must focus our prayers towards Nina Pham and the entire Pham family in hopes that Ms. Pham makes a complete recovery from the virus. But, we shouldn’t care about Nina Pham just because she is young and American — or (in the case of our community) because she is Asian American. We should care about Nina Pham’s current battle against the Ebola virus because she is a fellow traveller on this Earth who deserves better than this disease. As such, we should also focus our attention and energy — as well as our medical resources — towards Africa, where lives equally as valuable are being lost to this virus every day, and largely with our silence. Patients fighting Ebola throughout the world deserve our help and our care, not the business end of our rifles; and yes, they deserve that attention even if those patients are Black.

Black lives matter, and they should matter everywhere.

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  • Peter

    It is not cool that you have omitted the deeds of Thomas Duncan. What role did he play in his own fate and now in the fate of Nina Pham? He knew he was in a hotzone and had had direct contact with infected individuals. He lied to leave Liberia and he lied again to come here, and then hung around Dallas for 5 days before going to the hospital, putting hundreds of people at risk along the way: Airplane passengers on multiple flights, travelers at multiple airports, his own family, his community, this country, and especially the medical staff at Nina’s hospital. And now Nina may pay the price for his recklessness. He was not an infallible saintly victim. He was a man who knowingly endangered countless others. He is worse than a drunk driver or even a murderer.

    As for the hospital staff, I am not ready to scream racism yet again. We do not know the various ethnicities of each doctor and nurse that Duncan encountered along the way. As Nina demonstrates, their staff is not composed of bigots who devalue black lives. More than likely, their staff is made up of hard working compassionate people who are just trying to do their damn best. And I want to make a very critical point: A medical professional can only be as effective as you, the patient, empower him or her to be. The patient plays a vital role in the treatment process. You can’t lie. There is a big difference between saying “I traveled to Liberia.” And saying “I was directly handling a symptomatic Ebola patient who was hemorrhaging on me.” That is a lie of omission, and a big one at that. The cries of racism in this instance are irresponsible. Duncan was as responsible for his own fate as anyone else.

    We should issue a commercial travel restriction from the affected countries, just as their neighbors in Africa are doing. If volunteers and members of various NGOs want to travel there, then the UN or the US government should charter private flights for those individuals or groups. Major international airports are the last place we want infected individuals to be.

  • Nottyboy

    I heard that Thomas Duncan was actually trying to help a pregnant neighbor who he thought had malaria. By all accounts, he was a good samaritan, same as Ms. Pham here.

    Hopefully she is able to pull through, but I think that the nurses association that spoke out is right: something is amiss either in the training or the equipment they’re being given.

    Nigeria managed to contain their own ebola problem, with less resources from what I’ve read, so I think there’s a problem with procedure and perhaps experience here (like in Spain). Though, to be fair, we really haven’t done that bad so far. Just could do a bit better.

  • Peter,

    As far as I’m concerned, blaming Duncan for contracting the virus is morally equivalent — which is to say as immoral — as blaming Pham. Duncan contracted Ebola after helping a pregnant teenaged neighbour into a taxi; he may not have been aware that this kind of brief exposure transmitted the disease (which is sort of atypical for this disease in the first place). He may not have known that his neighbour was sick with Ebola — she herself may not have known.

    In addition, Duncan was asymptomatic while he was travelling and asymptomatic in the first few days he was in Dallas. That is a time when he is not contagious.

    To say that he “knowingly endangered countless others” and is “worse than a drunk driver or even a murderer” is hyperbolic, inflammatory and frankly, counter-factual. There is no concrete evidence that he knowingly brought Ebola to the U.S., or that he knowingly lied to airport screeners. As such, I find your comment distasteful. Duncan is no more guilty of contracting and transmitting Ebola for trying to aid a sick pregnant woman get into a cab and coming into contact with bodily fluid than Pham is guilty of misconduct for breaking containment protocols — which basically must have happened in order for the disease to have spread to her — designed to protect her and other caregivers, as well as other hospital patients, from an outbreak.

  • Peter

    The only thing counter factual is your assertion that he was just helping a pregnant lady to a cab. He was living with that woman and according to multiple accounts, he had been around or had contact with multiple Ebola patients and was aware of the situation around him and the nature of the disease. He lied on his forms when leaving his country and even his OWN government holds him accountable for lying on those forms.

    It is not acceptable that he lied and then traveled. It is not his call to make if he is ‘safe’ because he is still in the incubation period. And just because he helped a woman to a taxi, which is a gross under-representaion of the extent of his exposure in his local community, does not justify exposing hundreds of new people to the disease. One act of good does not absolve you of future misdeeds!

    Even the president of his own government, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, recognizes his actions as unconscionable and unpardonable. No one is blaming Duncan for catching the virus, but that does not entitle him to expose others. Your argument is morally equivalent to saying that someone who knowingly has HIV can still sleep with new partners because, heck, its not their fault they got HIV.

    Personally, I find your attempts to link the actions of this irresponsible foreigner to Ferguson to be hyperbolic, inflammatory and frankly, irrelevant.

  • Peter, I linked Slate which both describes the contact he had with his neighbour and goes into further detail about how he may not have been aware that he had just had contact with an Ebola patient. How about you provide a link or two demonstrating that he “knowingly endangered others”?

    To be clear, I found no articles reporting that the woman he assisted into the cab was his mistress.

    Your argument is morally equivalent to saying that someone who knowingly has HIV can still sleep with new partners because, heck, its not their fault they got HIV.

    It is actually not, because the point in dispute is whether or not Mr. Duncan was aware that he a) had contracted Ebola, and b) whether or not he was engaging in behaviour known to transmit Ebola. Since people with Ebola do not come with fluorescent signs on their heads (the early symptoms of Ebola are largely indistinguishable from those of other viral infections), since helping a woman into a cab is not typically the kind of contact that would transmit Ebola, and since flying on an airplane is also NOT the kind of contact that would transmit Ebola, this is nothing like someone who “knowingly has HIV” having unprotected sex with unknowing partners. Nothing like it.

    My connection to Ferguson is quite straightforward. If you’re willing to villanize Thomas Eric Duncan, but not his caregiver — both of whom made simple and understandable errors in their handling of this disease — than that speaks to the colour-coded way in which you value the lives of other humans. For too many, Pham would be considered a victim, while Duncan would be considered criminally negligent. What you are saying about Mr. Duncan could quite easily be said about Ms. Pham. So how about we just give the victim-blaming a rest and value all lives equally when it comes to this disease?

  • BTW Peter, this is the current screening protocol for travellers coming from Liberia, and this is after Mr. Duncan’s death. Mr. Duncan’s death is not a product of his own failure, it is the (predictable) failure of an American immigrations and medical system that didn’t really think of Ebola as a disease that Americans could or should worry about on this side of the ocean before. Two weeks after Duncan’s death, the only precaution being taken is that passport screeners are wearing gloves before handling passports of passengers traveling from Liberia.

    And, as I wrote in my previous comment, there is no evidence being reported by any credible media source that Duncan was aware of his Ebola status or the status of the woman he assisted into a cab (family members thought her illness was prenancy related) and that he willfully lied on his forms and traveled to America anyways.

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