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Minnesota woman says Ebola in West Africa killed her husband

ST. PAUL -- A Minnesota woman says her husband has died as part of the unprecedented outbreak of Ebola virus that has killed more than 600 people in West Africa. Decontee Sawyer, 34, of Coon Rapids, said Monday that she learned on Friday from fri...


ST. PAUL -- A Minnesota woman says her husband has died as part of the unprecedented outbreak of Ebola virus that has killed more than 600 people in West Africa.

Decontee Sawyer, 34, of Coon Rapids, said Monday that she learned on Friday from friends and family members that Patrick Sawyer, 40, had died from the disease while traveling to Nigeria.

Patrick Sawyer worked for the Liberian government, his wife said, and was scheduled to return to Minnesota next month to visit the couple’s three children.


“I have three daughters who will never get to know their father,” Decontee Sawyer said in an interview.

Minnesota health officials said they could not comment Sawyer’s case, but said concerns are growing locally about the outbreak.

As of Sunday, it had sickened about 1,200 people across the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization. The outbreak tally includes 672 deaths.

Staff with the Minnesota Department of Health met Monday with representatives from the local West African community to discuss plans for education and outreach efforts.

The federal government already has travel alerts related to Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The Health Department is developing additional materials for use with the local West African media and continues to issue alerts to local physicians about the situation.

“The Ebola outbreak as it is occurring in West Africa is unprecedented,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases for the Minnesota Department of Health. “Anyone that calls West Africa home, who’s here in the U.S., is experiencing concern about the situation.”

Ebola virus disease is a severe, often fatal illness. Health officials call it one of the world’s most virulent diseases.

It is spread by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected animals or people. The incubation period can stretch from several days to three weeks, said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.


Previous Ebola outbreaks have been concentrated in rural areas and died out within a few weeks, Osterholm said. But the current outbreak has spread across a much broader geography and has persisted for months.

Initial symptoms include headaches, muscle aches, fever and chills - symptoms that can be caused by more common viruses, he said. The incubation period can last up to three weeks.

“Today, we have so many people who are so mobile - they basically are traveling long distances before we recognize they may have been exposed to the virus,” Osterholm said. “The longer that it continues, the more unusual it becomes.”

It’s certainly possible that a patient with Ebola virus could wind up in the United States, Osterholm said, although he added: “We would stop any transmission in the United States dead in its tracks.”

The potential for Ebola in the United States is part of the reason Decontee Sawyer said she wants to let people know about her late husband’s fate.

“Patrick was coming here. What if he still wasn’t displaying symptoms yet and came?” Sawyer asked. “He could have brought Ebola here. Someone else could bring Ebola here.”

Patrick and Decontee Sawyer married in December 2008 in Coon Rapids. They’re both U.S. citizens, she said, but were originally from Liberia. Decontee Sawyer came to the United States with her family in 1991; Patrick Sawyer came in the early 2000s.

Patrick Sawyer’s job involved promoting economic development in West Africa, his wife said. He last visited Minnesota in September, Decontee Sawyer said, adding that his long intervals away from the state had become common.


The couple has two children with August birthdays, so Patrick Sawyer planned a return trip next month to celebrate with them.

Before becoming ill, Patrick Sawyer had been caring for a sister who was sick with what turned out to be Ebola, Decontee Sawyer said. She added: “They didn’t know she was ill from that.”

Patrick Sawyer flew to Nigeria for a government conference and fell ill on the plane last week, his wife said. She heard from friends and family members on Thursday that he was very ill with Ebola virus disease and learned of his death on Friday.

The U.S. Department of State did not respond to questions about the story.

On Sunday, the World Health Organization noted in an update about the outbreak that Nigerian officials had reported their first probable case of Ebola virus disease.

“According to the Nigeria authorities, the case is a 40-year-old Liberian male national who recently travelled to Nigeria where he presented in hospital with symptoms,” the WHO update stated. “He was symptomatic while traveling, was admitted to a private hospital immediately on arrival, and died on (Friday).”

Decontee Sawyer said the sequence of events shows how close Ebola is.

“I don’t want any other families to go through this,” Sawyer said. “Ebola has to stop. This can’t happen anymore.”


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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