Ebola was already here

Dr. Thomas Cairns, in the operating room in Africa decades ago. Photo courtesy of Dr. Cairns via NBC News

Dr. Thomas Cairns, in an operating room in Africa decades ago. Photo courtesy of Dr. Cairns via NBC News

Although there have been breathless reports over the last week about the first Americans to arrive in the country with Ebola, the virus itself is studied in U.S. labs, notes Tara C. Smith in the Aetiology blog, and there have been at least seven cases of Lassa virus, a similar African hemorrhagic fever, in the United States.

One of those Lassa cases was diagnosed in Philadelphia in 2010 when a 47-year-old returned from Liberia, the same country where healthcare workers Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly caught Ebola in the latest outbreak of the highly infectious disease. The Philadelphia patient spent 21 days in the hospital but survived, according to UPMC’s Clinicians’ Biosecurity News.

Experimental treatments for Brantly included a transfusion from a Liberian survivor of Ebola whose blood is rich in antibodies.

NBC News has tracked down a man in Minneapolis who also carries those antibodies. In fact, Dr. Thomas Cairns is not only the first American to be stricken with Ebola, he’s “in all likelihood” the first non-African to survive the dreaded hemorrhagic fever.

In 1972 — four years before there was even a name for the Ebola virus — Cairns was working in central Africa when a patient died. While conducting an autopsy, he accidentally cut himself with a scalpel.  Cairns became gravely ill but with “the grace of God” lived to tell the tale.

He remained working in Africa, and when Ebola killed 280 in Zaire in 1976, it garnered the attention of CDC and WHO epidemiologists who collected blood samples in the region, including one from Cairns.

“That’s when we knew: I was, in all likelihood, the first non-African survivor of the Ebola virus,” he tells NBC News.

Cairns, 71, now lives in Minnesota. He works in urgent care in a suburb of Minneapolis.