Dr. Kent Brantly was the first American to be transported to the U.S. for treatment of Ebola after he became infected while volunteering in Liberia in July.
As part of his treatment, Dr. Brantly, who works with the missionary group Samaritan’s Purse, received a unit of blood from a 14-year-old boy who survived Ebola.
Now he is returning the favor.
Dr. Rick Sacra, another U.S. aid worker who was volunteering in Liberia, is being treated for Ebola at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Dr. Brantly flew from North Carolina to Omaha to donate blood to Dr. Sacra in hopes that it will aid in his recovery.
Dr. Sacra received two transfusions of Dr. Brantly’s blood last weekend. Sacra has also been given an experimental drug that doctors have been asked not to identify.
Since receiving the donated blood, Sacra has made excellent progress. Samaritan’s Purse President and CEO Franklin Graham told NBC news that Brantly’s blood was a “perfect match” for Sacra, and he thinks the transfusion helped:
“Dr. Brantly said that when he saw him last week he was in pretty bad shape,” Graham said. “It sounds like he has made a dramatic turn.”
Dr. Angela Hewlett, who is treating Sacra, agreed:
“His progress has been remarkable,” she told a news conference.
Using blood plasma – or “convalescent serum” – from Ebola survivors is not a new approach, but is still considered experimental. That’s because although it has been used in the past, there is no concrete evidence that shows it works.
Dr. Seema Yasmin explained how it works and what the concerns are to NBC DFW:
“When somebody survives an Ebola infection, they have antibodies in their blood that can attack the virus. So, the idea of giving somebody the blood from a survivor is that they’ll have those pre-made antibodies ready to start fighting the virus.
The medical community is divided about whether transfusions for Ebola treatment are a good idea or not. On the one side, you’ve got doctors saying transfusions may or may not work, we’re not sure why they’re giving them. On the other hand, the World Health Organization says right now there’s no other treatment and fear is really fueling this epidemic. So, let’s at least offer this as a glimmer of hope- a possible treatment that could work.”
The World Health Organization (WHO), desperate to get the outbreak under control, is now encouraging the use of convalescent serum as treatment:
“We agreed that whole blood therapy and convalescent serum may be used to treat Ebola virus disease,” WHO assistant director-general Dr. Marie Paule Kieny told a news conference. “For treatment there was good consensus on using whole blood and plasma. This can be done in Ebola-affected countries now.” And data from the first human trial of an experimental Ebola vaccine will be ready in November, Kieny said. If people get basic treatment fast, they are more likely to live. “We know that with good care you can reduce the mortality rate absolutely, significantly,” Kieny said.
Dr. Peter Piot, director of London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, also supports the use of survivors’ blood as treatment:
“This is something that’s fairly simple to do,” he told the Associated Press.
Dr. Michael Kurilla, director of BioDefense at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said that for treating Ebola, “you would need to come up with how much you should give, how long, and what’s a safe infusion rate.”
“If you know what the potency of the serum is, you could theoretically help the body clear Ebola out of their cells before it can do too much damage.”
Dr. Colin Brown, who recently worked in Ebola clinics in Sierra Leone for King’s College London’s partnership with the country, said local hospitals should be able to provide survivors’ blood if doctors want to offer it:
“It does give us the opportunity to try some new therapies. And as long as they are not harmful, why shouldn’t we try to do something, hopefully help some patients and learn from this?”
In 1995, an Ebola outbreak in Kikwit infected 315 people, 244 of whom died. At the end of that outbreak, a nurse became infected. Some of the medical professionals who recovered from the disease wanted to donate some of their blood to the nurse as a last-ditch effort to save her.
The idea was met with skepticism from American and British doctors, but the Congolese doctors did it anyway. The nurse recovered, and the blood transfusion treatment was used on 7 other patients.
The results were stunning: 7 of the 8 treated survived.
That’s close to a 90% recovery rate, which is incredible, considering that outbreak had a 77% FATALITY rate.
To date, there have been 4,784 cases reported in the current outbreak, 2,400 of which were fatal. Experts say the actual numbers are likely higher, as people in affected areas have been known to hide sick family members and the dead.
Whether or not the convalescent serum treatment will become standard is yet to be seen. If it is accepted and widely used, maybe there is hope for an end to this outbreak.
It is sad, however, to think that perhaps the 2,400 who have lost their lives so far might have had a chance of survival if they’d been offered this promising treatment.