American video journalist Ashoka Mukpo, who contracted Ebola while working as a cameraman for NBC in Liberia and is currently being treated for the virus at a hospital in Nebraska, will receive blood transfusions from a doctor who survived Ebola.
Whether the transfusions will actually help is a matter of considerable uncertainty.
A small number of patients have been treated with experimental drugs like ZMapp, but the efficacy of those drugs is still unknown. (Stores of ZMapp have already been exhausted.) As Ebola spreads, the blood of survivors is much easier to come by than experimental drugs, which are largely untested and in very short supply.
Blood from Kent Brantly, an American missionary worker who also became ill with Ebola in Liberia but recovered in August after being treated in the US, will be shipped to Mukpo in Omaha. Doctors are hoping it might boost his chances of recovery.
A number of infected patients outside of West Africa have received transfusions from Ebola survivors. While still in Liberia, Brantly received a transfusion from a 14-year-old Ebola survivor. Rick Sacra, another American missionary who contracted Ebola in Africa and has since recovered, received blood transfusions from Brantly in September. The Spanish nurse who was diagnosed with Ebola this week — and whose identity has not yet been released — also received transfusions from recovered patients.
Since many patients recover on their own, these cases are not enough to determine whether the transfusions have been helpful. But when fighting a disease with no known cure, people will try just about anything.
What The Evidence Says
The World Health Organisation issued a statement last month advising that those infected with Ebola be treated with the blood or plasma of virus survivors.
The idea behind the guidance is simple: Blood from people who have survived the virus could help strengthen their defenses because they would now possess the antibodies that survivors developed to beat it.
Unfortunately, there’s little scientific evidence to prove that the treatment will actually help. The WHO recommendation, for example, is based on a small 1999 study in which seven out of eight people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who received blood transfusions from Ebola survivors survived the virus. But the study was so small the researchers hesitated to draw any firm conclusion. “We cannot conclude that the neutralising antibodies in transfused [survivor] blood improves the outcome,” they wrote. (“Other explanations for the survival of these patients have been proposed,” another team of researchers wrote later.)
While a small lab study did provide limited additional evidence supporting transfusions, a later study performed in primates came to more dismal conclusions. After scientists transferred the blood of monkeys who’d survived Ebola to four recently infected monkeys, all of them died. That study was also small, but the scientists’ conclusions after their trial calls into question the use of any blood transfusions.
“Given these discouraging results and the risks of transmitting infection, whole-blood transfusions, even under desperate epidemic conditions, seem unwarranted,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Still, the research remains limited and inconclusive. With few options to fight a quickly spreading disease, the panel of 200 WHO experts decided to recommend using transfusions because of the feasibility and availability of the intervention.
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