Facing the worst-ever outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, global health experts in West Africa find themselves empty-handed.
At first, the Ebola virus causes what might feel like a run-of-the-mill tropical illness: high fever, aches and pains, diarrhea. But those sickened by Ebola often end up bleeding from every orifice. The virus, spread by contact with infected bodily fluids, kills about 8 of every 10 people it infects.
Africa is in the midst of the worst outbreak of the feared disease since it was first identified almost 40 years ago. Across the West African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, 750 people have fallen ill since the outbreak began in March, and more than 460 have died.
A U.S. citizen in Ghana is being tested for Ebola infection after falling ill with hemorrhagic fever, according to a Reuters report. The patient is under quarantine at a clinic in the capital city of Accra. According to Reuters, the man had recently traveled to Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) held an emergency meeting, bringing together health authorities from 11 African countries along with global health experts to plan a coordinated response to the outbreak.
“We are here to make a real difference, a difference that will be felt beyond this room for millions of people in dire need for solutions. We have a small window of opportunity to prevent the outbreak of Ebola from spreading further,” Sherry Aryeetey, Ghana’s minister of health, told the delegates.
Ebola outbreaks typically occur in rural, forested areas. The virus originates in the fruit bat; it also infects non-human primates, and those who hunt and eat monkeys can become infected through contact with their blood.
The current outbreak also began in a rural area—in southern Guinea, near the borders of Sierra Leone and Liberia. But the virus has crossed those borders and spread to urban areas, including the Guinean capital of Conakry, speeding its transmission.
The delegates agreed to mobilize community, religious, and political leaders to educate local residents on how to avoid becoming infected.
“Instead of being properly gowned when they’re caring for people that are sick or even dead, people are essentially reverting to customs of having bodies in the house and hugging the body and touching the body, which is really kind of a catastrophe,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Healthline.
The WHO delegates are also drumming up resources to bring healthcare providers and supplies, such as gloves and gowns, to West Africa.
For the most part, though, all medical workers can do is ease patients’ fever and dehydration in hopes that they’ll recover on their own.
As Ebola’s death toll continues to mount, researchers are scrambling to find a vaccine or a drug that can knock out the virus after a person has been infected.
“There are a couple of vaccines which are promising in animals, but they haven’t even yet been tried in humans. They’ll be rushing to get them into early phase I trials, but that’s not going to happen today or tomorrow,” Fauci said.
Phase I trials are designed to ensure that new drugs don’t do harm; without that data, public health workers can’t administer new drugs even in dire situations like the one unfolding in Africa.
One set of researchers sought to speed up the process by screening a variety of drugs already approved for use in humans. They found that a couple of estrogen receptor modulators used to treat breast cancer slowed the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus’s attack on the immune system in rodents. The Zaire strain is the most deadly of the virus’s variants, and the one behind the current outbreak.
But mice are a long way from humans. “Until a drug goes into monkeys and can be shown to protect against Ebola and doesn’t actually kill the monkeys, you can’t really say you have a drug against Ebola,” said Kartik Chandran, an immunologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University who focuses on Ebola and its cousin the Marburg virus.
But with the latest outbreak underway, U.S. Army researchers
Chandran is part of a group of scientists who received a $28 million National Institutes of Health grant to survey medications that may treat Ebola and Marburg using monoclonal antibodies, or antibodies that target a single disease-causing pathogen. Chandran says there’s more evidence supporting this approach than any other, and antibodies are more likely to be safe in humans than pharmaceutical compounds dreamed up in a lab.
“One of the premises of the grant is that we will collect any antibodies available in the field, made by any investigator, and test them. The idea is that by hoovering up everything that’s out there, we can test everything fairly and come up with the best combination,” Chandran said.
If they’re successful, doctors may finally have something more to offer than condolences the next time Ebola strikes.
Photo courtesy of EC/ECHO.