(Adds new Ebola death toll, scare at Pentagon, Texas governor’s comment)
By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama appointed a former White House adviser as U.S. Ebola “czar” on Friday as the global death toll from the disease that has hit mostly three West African countries rose to more than 4,500.
Amid growing concerns about the spread of the virus in the United States, authorities said a Texas health worker who may have had contact with specimens from an Ebola patient was quarantined on a cruise ship.
Obama, facing criticism from some lawmakers over his administration’s handling of efforts to contain the virus, appointed Ron Klain, a lawyer who previously served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, to oversee the U.S. response to the virus.
Klain’s appointment and the cruise ship incident highlighted anxiety over the threat from Ebola even though there have been just three cases diagnosed in the country, all in Dallas, Texas. They were a Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed in the country, and two nurses who were among the team of health workers caring for him up to his death last week.
The worst-hit countries have been Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where Ebola has taken 4,546 lives since the outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever began there in March, according to a new report on Friday from the World Health Organization.
That marked a sharp increase from late July, when fewer than than 730 people had died from the disease in West Africa. The virus is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person.
The toll on the worst-hit countries has gone beyond the illness, because of disruptions to farming and marketing. World Food Program said food prices in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had risen by an average of 24 percent, forcing some families to reduce their intake to one meal a day.
In the United States, Obama sought to convey leadership of the issue by appointing a “czar.”
Klain, the president of Case Holdings and general counsel at Revolution LLC, a technology-oriented venture capital firm based in Washington, has been asked to take on coordination of the entire U.S. government response to Ebola, reporting directly to homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser.
The Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital worker aboard the cruise ship, who did not have direct contact with the now-deceased Liberian patient, Duncan, but could have processed his bodily fluids, left Sunday on a cruise from Galveston, Texas. The health worker has been self-monitoring since Oct. 6 and has not developed a fever or other symptoms of Ebola, the State Department said.
Carnival Cruise Lines said Friday it had been notified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that a passenger on the ship, the Carnival Magic, was a lab supervisor at Texas Health Presbyterian. It said she was deemed to be “very low risk.”
The ship can carry 3,690 passengers and 1,367 crew, according to the company’s website. Carnival is owned by Carnival Corp.
The State Department said the worker may have processed samples from Duncan 19 days ago. The maximum incubation window for the disease is 21 days, according to the CDC. The worker and a companion voluntarily isolated themselves in their cabin.
Illustrating the degree of public worry in the United States, the Pentagon confirmed an Ebola scare on Friday in one of its parking lots when a women who recently traveled to Africa vomited after getting off a bus headed to a high-level Marine Corps ceremony.
Officials said they did not know exactly where she had traveled to in Africa or whether she had a fever. The Pentagon said the woman was rushed to a local hospital. [ID:nL2N0SC1I7)
Klain was appointed the day after U.S. lawmakers held a congressional hearing about the administration’s handling of Ebola, with some calling for a ban on travel from West Africa, as other politicians have in recent weeks
Obama said he had no philosophical objection to a travel ban but that some travelers might attempt to enter the United States by avoiding screening measures, which could lead to more Ebola cases, not fewer.
On Thursday, he authorized calling up military reservists for the U.S. fight against Ebola in West Africa.
In a sign the disease can be beaten, the World Health Organization said on Friday that the West African country of Senegal was now Ebola-free, although the country was still vulnerable to further cases.
The CDC has said it is expanding its search for people who may have been exposed to Amber Vinson - one of the nurses who treated the Ebola patient in Texas - to include passengers on a flight she made to Cleveland, Ohio in addition to those on her Monday return trip to Texas. Vinson went to Ohio at the weekend on Frontier Airlines while running a slight fever.
Dr. Christopher Braden, a CDC spokesman, said Vinson may have been ill as early as Friday, when she boarded the flight from Dallas to Cleveland.
In Texas, Governor Rick Perry said on Friday health officials were actively monitoring eight air travelers who had close contact with Vinson.
Lawrence Vinson, Amber Vinson’s uncle, told CNN on Friday that no travel restrictions were imposed on the nurses who treated Duncan and that his niece did not believe she was putting anyone in danger by boarding the plane to Ohio.
He said his niece did not contact the CDC directly, but health workers in Texas had checked in with her in Ohio and made multiple calls to the CDC to get the go-ahead for her flight back to Dallas on Monday.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, has said it is unlikely passengers who flew with Vinson were infected because the nurse had not vomited or bled on the flight, but he said she should not have boarded the plane.
The first nurse to contract the disease in the United States, Nina Pham, was in fair and stable condition, U.S. health officials said on Friday.
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Mohammad Zargham, Frances Kerry and Jeff Mason in Washington, Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans and Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Writing by Jim Loney and Tom Brown; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool