GENEVA, Switzerland — The World Health Organization recently declared that blood from Ebola survivors should be used to help treat those currently infected with the virus. Since there are no proven vaccines or medicines to treat Ebola, the WHO believes that blood transfusions may be the best option for the time being. This week, the organization published a guide detailing the best ways to collect donations and manage transfusions.
Nations in West Africa are currently experiencing the worst Ebola epidemic in history. An estimated 7,400 people have been infected with the virus, resulting in more than 3,400 deaths. Transfusions of whole blood and plasma from recovering victims have been an effective form of treatment in several cases.
Survivors’ blood contains powerful antibodies that help boost the patient’s immunity. The newest WHO guidebook states, “The concept that this treatment could be efficacious is biologically plausible, as convalescent plasma has been used successfully for the treatment of a variety of infectious agents.”
While it is believed that the blood will help infected patients, there is insufficient research on whether or not it is a valid means of fighting Ebola. Blood therapy has previously been used in several Ebola cases, including a 1995 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Reports show that 7 out of 8 patients survived the virus. However, researchers are unsure of the role that plasma antibodies played in their survival.
Since the recent Ebola epidemic, convalescent blood has been used on an experimental level. Kent Brantly was among the first to receive a blood transfusion containing Ebola antibodies. The American doctor, who contracted the disease after working with Ebola patients in Liberia, also received an experimental vaccine called ZMapp. As of September, Brantly had fully recovered and has since donated blood to help other infected patients.
The high amount of Ebola survivors makes this form of treatment convenient to many people in affected areas. WHO assistant director general, Dr. Marie Paule Kieny, believes “[t]here is a real opportunity that a blood-derived product can be used now and this can be very effective in terms of treating patients.”
Sufficient studies have yet to be conducted on plasma transfusions as an Ebola treatment method. In cases where experimental blood therapy has been used, it is often difficult to test how helpful the antibodies were to the recovery process. Additionally, each blood donation contains different amounts of antibodies making it more complicated to monitor. Healthcare workers also have to take serious precautions to test blood donors for HIV and hepatitis when using plasma therapy.
WHO is presently encouraging Ebola survivors to donate blood in order to help treat those infected. Various empirical vaccines are currently being tested in the U.S. and will soon be sent to health centers in the U.K., Mali and Gambia. WHO hopes to have a successfully tested treatment by November.
– Meagan Douches