BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania — As the Ebola crisis in West Africa worsens, desperation has caused some to search for the blood of Ebola survivors on the black market.
With the 2,400 dead and the total number of cases of infection at 4,800 people, the crisis is overriding the safety concerns associated with using the blood of Ebola survivors.
Using the blood of Ebola survivors, called convalescent serum, is very old method used decades ago for the treatment of rabies. High in antibodies that can combat the disease, the method was used on American aid worker, Rick Sacra, who received the serum from Kent Brantly, another American that survived the disease.
However, the usage of convalescent serums is extremely experimental and possibly dangerous. The treatment can cause anaphylactic shock or death or contract other blood-borne diseases, such as HIV.
The usefulness of convalescent serums can also be called into question. While Sacra’s health is improving, it is unknown whether it was from the blood from Brantly or from the different experimental drug he took or simply even access to modern medical care. In addition, while a report published in the Journal of Infecticious Diseases examining the outbreak of Ebola in Zaire in 1995 found treatment resulted in only one death out of the eight patients, the effectiveness was not supported by later studies.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the treatment’s effectiveness, the World Health Organization (WHO) has prioritized the use of convalescent serums due to its cost-effectiveness, the lack of other alternatives and the potential that it may be helpful.
The WHO has announced plans for using whole blood therapies and convalescent serums to treat Ebola, but the wide-scale use is not expected until the end of the year.
The rise of a black market for the blood of Ebola survivors signals the need for immediate action while also raising concerns about the increased risks associated with convalescent serums. Furthermore, the black market can disrupt vital supply distribution, preventing supplies from reaching patients in need. The WHO hopes to work with governments in stamping out the black market and creating a safe system for convalescent serums.
The potential for survivors’ blood is promising and with approximately half of the disease’s victims still alive, the list of potential donors is substantial. However, even with safe medical practices, there are still risks associated with using such a method in an epidemic.
Jeffery Klausner, professor of medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles, worries that if adequate measures are not put into place, patients will be at risk of numerous dangers, ranging from other diseases to bad reactions to transfusions. Procedures regarding blood transfusions must be conducted under the most rigorous medical supervisions to ensure safety.
The use of the black market demonstrates the sheer desperation that has permeated the crisis in West Africa. Unless more wide-scale actions are taken, the situation may continue to destabilize and the most affected could be those in poverty.
– William Ying