'Studies underway for possible ebola treatment option '

Diana Wangari, Special Correspondent, Kenya
(First published in The Star News, Kenya)
Recently, on a flight in Europe, I was seated next to a charming French lady who was all smiles and ‘Bonjour’ when taking her seat. Satisfied that the old lady was all charm and good manners, I took my nap. You can imagine my surprise when I woke up, only to find that the lady was now wearing a facemask.

For a brief moment, I was confused—was some sort of emergency declared while I was sleeping, and did not that usually call for oxygen masks and not a health hazard mask? Looking around me and noticing that no one else seemed to be wearing a mask and reassured by the stability of the plane that appeared to be high above ground level, or cloud level for that matter, I was even more confused. Why then was the lady wearing a mask?

Now, there are two things that you must understand: one that this was around the time when two cases of Ebola had been reported in Europe and second that I was the only obvious African on the plane (at least I had not seen any other African co-passenger while boarding). Staring outside the window, I could not help but wonder, could it be that she thought I was from one of the affected Western African countries and hence a possible health risk? I did not blame her, Ebola was on everyone’s mind and more so, cracks in protection and screening measures were being exposed, resulting in the threat landing closer to home. If you had told me you were from an Ebola affected country in West Africa, I too would have been cautious and would have had a few follow up questions.

However, I was not from any of the affected countries and I was not even travelling from Africa; I was doing my medical school elective period at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. But how do I let the lady know? For you see, my knowledge of French was limited to use a fair sprinkling of ‘Bonjour’, ‘ça va’ and even an occasional ‘oui’ here and there, but it did not include descriptive medical terminology.

It was then that it occurred to me that perhaps, the first step should be to ask why she was wearing a mask. She just might have allergies. She did. And for the next half an hour, she went on to explain that ever since she was a little girl she had been ‘afraid of germs’.  It had resulted in an obsessive-compulsive disorder and she was actually diagnosed with Mysophobia (fear of germs). But she had managed to work through it in the course of time and was happy that she was ‘recovering’. But whenever she was in an aircraft she just had to wear a facemask. I went on to relate to her my concern and she laughed. I was relieved that I was saved the effort of looking for the map of Africa highlighting the countries affected by Ebola just to prove that it was not the entire continent.

After landing, she took off her mask, hugged me and whispered, “There are much worse things than Ebola chérie and some have been here longer.” She was right, but it is the Ebola virus that is on everyone’s minds. It is not just the ease of transmission and high fatality rate associated with the disease that frightens people, but because till now there are no approved and readily available treatment options.

Therefore, the news of an international research consortium led by the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp to assess whether treatment with antibodies in the blood of Ebola survivors could help infected patients to fight off the disease can only be described as a more than welcome effort. If proven effective, this straightforward intervention could be scaled up in the short term and provide an urgently needed treatment option for patients in West Africa.

The researchers will receive €2.9 million of European Union funding to evaluate the safety and efficacy of treatment with blood and plasma made from the blood of recovered Ebola patients. This was following a WHO expert meeting in September, which recommended convalescent blood therapies as one of the most promising strategies, meriting urgent evaluation as treatment of Ebola disease.

ITM’s Johan van Griensven, the project’s coordinating investigator, said: “Blood and plasma therapy are medical interventions with a long history, safely used for other infectious diseases. We want to find out whether this approach works for Ebola, is safe and can be put into practice to reduce the number of deaths in the present outbreak. Ebola survivors contributing to curb the epidemic by donating blood could reduce fear of the disease and improve their acceptance in the communities.”

After months of health awareness campaigns, seeking to educate people on Ebola and with websites containing relevant information receiving thousands of views in a day, the message is yet to sink in-- not many of us really understand Ebola, especially with regards to transmission, and those even who do, cannot truly get over their fears. Therefore, the need for more inputs into efforts to seek out treatment options and a possible vaccine cannot be understated.

This might be the only solution, strong enough to calm the waters for even those that are miles away from the epicentre of the outbreak. But more importantly, it will be a miracle that the affected countries are praying for.

Two Swiss hospitals are conducting trials of experimental vaccines against the virus: the NewLink vaccine, developed by Canada, is being tested in Geneva, while the GlaxoSmithKline vaccine is being tested in Lausanne. Though Scientists in Canada had announced the successful treatment of the Ebola viral infection only in monkeys, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was able to pledge another US$5.7 million to the programme. There you have it—I mean the momentum. All options must be explored to control the deadly disease.

Diana Wangari, Citizen News Service - CNS 
27 November 2014