In the wake of an attack on a Liberian quarantine center and seemingly uncontrollable spreading of the disease, the World Health Organization(WHO) is considering treating Ebola virus patients with the blood of infected survivors. This discussion is taking place against the backdrop of conflicting reports about missing patients from the quarantine facility.
Saturday evening an angry mob, including armed men shouting “there's no Ebola,” stormed a quarantine building in the center of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Some of the attackers were also family members of quarantined patients who wanted their relatives to come home, and others were protesting the introduction of sick outsiders into the city.
Several reports say that 27 infected patients left the facility as a result of the raid. The BBC reports that 10 patients were removed by relatives and 17 are simply unaccounted for. This report conflicts with the statement of Tolbert Nyenswah, Liberia's assistant minister of health, who claims that all patients were eventually moved to John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Center.
However, both local journalists and witnesses say that by Friday night 10 patients left the center with relatives; 17 more fled during the attack and rioting the next day. Head of the Health Workers Association of Liberia, George Williams, confirmed that each of these patients were infected with Ebola and were being treated before the incident. Williams also confirmed that 17 patients escaped, but said that only three left with relatives. Nyenswah denied that the Ebola diagnosis had been confirmed.
Perhaps almost as disturbing as the escape is the fact that workers from the quarantine center report that the center was looted. Bloody mattresses, bedding, and medical equipment were all taken from the center. Since Ebola is transferred through contact with the bodily fluids of infected people, handling this kind of refuse is incredibly dangerous; these items being passed from person to person in an urban area like Monrovia could easily cause many more infections in a short period of time.
Experts including WHO officials have emphasized that stopping the spread of the disease in Liberia now is crucial to controlling the Ebola outbreak everywhere. This is because of the epidemiological pattern of this particular outbreak, the population density of the cities and geography of the country as a whole, and the fact that provision of medical care is difficult in Liberia due to ignorance about the Ebola virus.
Several samples of experimental drugs like ZMapp have been sent to Liberia and other places in West Africa by manufacturers, but supplies of these drugs are very limited. Nigerian officials are also reportedly trying a new treatment called nanosilver to deal with the outbreak, but again, this is not readily available for use. As a result, the WHO is now considering convalescent serum therapy. This was used during the SARS outbreak, for example, with some success.
Convalescent serum therapy works like a vaccine. The blood of a person who has fought off a disease successfully contains the antibodies needed to defend against the virus. While it is not yet clear whether or not this approach will be safe or feasible, given the magnitude of this outbreak, WHO experts feel it must be investigated thoroughly. It has been used successfully to treat isolated cases of Ebola in the past.
Thus far at least 2,127 people have been infected by the Ebola virus during this outbreak, and 1,145 of them have died. WHO feels these numbers may greatly underestimate the actual crisis due to underreporting.