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One of the deadliest known viruses in the world hit home on Sunday when a church congregation in Charlotte, N.C., learned one of its members and missionary, Nancy Writebol, tested positive for Ebola.
“You could almost hear the congregation gasp,” said Calvary Church Pastor John Munro, who delivered the news at the start of the service Sunday.
Munro said the wife and mother of two adult sons contracted Ebola while in Liberia and caring for those already infected with the disease. Writebol worked alongside Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, of Fort Worth, Texas, who also recently contracted the disease.
Nancy and her husband, David, have been doing missionary work in Liberia for the past year.
Munro told WSOC-TV in Charlotte that he learned Nancy wasn’t feeling well through the Baileys, close family friends of the couple.
“Nancy told us she had been ill for the past week and had flu-like symptoms,” explained Bill Bailey, outside his home in Charlotte on Sunday. “They told us Friday they thought she may have contracted malaria and were treating her for that.”
Bill said he and his wife had been staying in touch with the Writebols through Skype, but on Saturday night, he received the devastating phone call from Nancy’s husband.
“David called and said Nancy’s blood test came back positive for Ebola,” said Bailey, holding back tears. “It was the worst possible news you could expect to hear about your best friend. David isn’t able to go into the home they shared. Nancy is isolated and receiving treatment.”
When asked, Bailey said the Writebols remain strong in their faith despite the diagnosis.
“David said their fate was in God’s hands,” Bailey said. “If this is what it takes for more people to know Christ, then I know they would not object what God has ordained for them.”
Bailey said the family is asking for prayers.
On Saturday, Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization based in Boone, N.C., announced one of its doctors had tested positive for Ebola.
Ken Isaacs, a vice president of Samaritan's Purse, said that Dr. Kent Brantly — the 33-year-old medical director for the group's Ebola care center on the outskirts of the Liberian capital of Monrovia — was stable and in very serious condition.
"We are hopeful and prayerful," Isaacs said from the group headquarters. He said the doctor quickly recognized the symptoms and sought speedy treatment.
Isaacs, the 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."
The highly contagious virus is one of the most deadly diseases in the world. The World Health Organization said the outbreak is the largest ever recorded, killing more than 670 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone since it began earlier this year.
Health workers are at serious risk of contracting the disease, which spreads through contact with bodily fluids.
Photos of Brantly working in Liberia show him in white coveralls made of a synthetic material that he wore for hours a day while treating Ebola patients.
There is no known cure for Ebola, which begins with symptoms including fever and sore throat and escalates to vomiting, diarrhea and internal and external bleeding. The WHO says the disease is not contagious until a person begins to show symptoms.
Brantly's wife and children had been living with him in Liberia but flew home to the U.S. about a week ago, before the doctor started showing any signs of illness, said Melissa Strickland, a spokeswoman for Samaritan's Purse.
"They have absolutely shown no symptoms," she said.
A woman who identified herself as Brantly's mother said the family was declining immediate comment when reached by phone in Indiana late Saturday.
Brantly is a graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine and went to Liberia as part of a two-year fellowship with Samaritan's Purse, shortly after he completed his residency in family medicine at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas.
"The caliber of a person like that who says, 'I'm going Africa, I'm going to where people need me the most,' it really speaks to you," Robert Earley, president and CEO of JPS Health Network, said Sunday. "It speaks to your heart."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.