As hospitals in nations hardest hit by Ebola struggle to cope with the outbreak, desperate patients are turning to the black market to buy blood from survivors of the virus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said. The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has killed at least 2,400 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — the countries most affected by the virus. Blood from survivors, referred to as convalescent serum, is said to have antibodies that can fight the deadly virus. Though the treatment is unproven, it has provided some promise for those fighting a disease that’s killing more than half of those it has infected.
“Studies suggest blood transfusions from survivors might prevent or treat Ebola virus infection in others, but the results of the studies are still difficult to interpret,” the WHO said in a report by Cable News Network (CNN) yesterday.
“It is not known whether antibodies in the plasma of survivors are sufficient to treat or prevent the disease. More research is needed,” the WHO was quoted as saying.
Convalescent serum has been used to treat patients, including American aid worker Rick Sacra, who is hospitalised in Omaha, Nebraska. He got blood from Kent Brantly, a fellow American who survived Ebola. Both were infected while helping patients in Liberia.
But unlike their situation, patients in affected nations are getting blood through improper channels. The illicit trade could lead to the spread of other infections, including HIV and other blood-related ailments.
“We need to work very closely with the affected countries to stem out black market trading of convalescent serum for two reasons,” Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general said this week.
“Because it is in the interest of individuals not to just get convalescent serum without… going through the proper standard and the proper testing, because it is important that there may be other infectious vectors that we need to look at.”
Reacting to the development, the co-chair of the treatment and research group on Ebola set up by the federal government, Prof Karminius Gamaniel, said it was very probable, given the nature of vaccines and how they work in the body in the fight against virus
He explained that the body would normally react by releasing antibodies to fight the bacteria, which also goes the same for vaccines, which stimulate the body to release antibodies to fight the virus.
Gamaniel, who is also the director general of the Nigerian Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), likened the deadly Ebola virus to measles, which the body builds resistance to and the victim can no longer contact it after a first-time infection.
“Obviously, the people know that the Ebola survivors have developed antibodies to the virus and so can no longer be infected by it, that’s why they are going for their blood,” he said, adding that antibodies can also be stimulated indirectly.
Gamaniel, however cautioned against it, because, according to him, such blood could be contaminated with other infections.
“Yes, you’re getting antibodies but blood can react, bearing in mind also the different blood groups. So people can react to it and get infected by other diseases through it,” he warned.
Meanwhile, health experts have declared the disease a global emergency and criticised the international community for its lax response.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced that the United States would send troops and materials to build field hospitals, and additional health care workers and community care kits to affected nations. The United States, he said, would also create a facility to help train thousands of health care workers to identify and care for Ebola patients.
“Men and women and children are just sitting, waiting to die right now,” Obama said.
Hospitals in affected nations are overwhelmed and the WHO has described the outbreak as a “dire emergency with… unprecedented dimensions” of human suffering.
“If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us,” Obama said.
There is also a concern that the virus could mutate into an even more dangerous form. Ebola currently transmits only though contact with bodily fluids; a mutation that allows the virus to spread through the air would pose a catastrophic threat to people worldwide, experts have said.
Meanwhile, a French volunteer with Doctors Without Borders has contracted Ebola in Liberia and will be taken to France for further treatment, the group said Thursday.
A private American plane will be used for the evacuation, according to the organisation, which is known by its French acronym MSF.