Health Experts: Africa Should Have Access to Experimental Treatments

Thursday, 07 Aug 2014 11:35 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Governments of African countries stricken by Ebola should be able to decide whether to allow experimental drugs to protect and treat healthcare workers and others running high risks of infection, three global health experts argue in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal.

"It is highly likely that if Ebola were now spreading in Western countries, public-health authorities would give at-risk patients access to experimental drugs or vaccines," write Dr. Jeremy Farrar, Dr. David Heymann, and Dr. Peter Piot.

Piot is one of the doctors who co-discovered Ebola in 1976, according to BBC News.

The doctors wrote that they have seen several incidents in which experimental treatments have saved lives. A virologist in Hamburg conducting experiments on mice was given an experimental vaccine after she pricked her finger with a syringe containing the Zaire Ebola virus, which is the strain that is killing people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The treatment had only been tested on primates, but was the virologist's only option, and she lived after receiving the vaccine.

"It is unclear exactly how the vaccine worked, or indeed whether she was ever infected," the doctors said. "What is important is that immediate access to an experimental vaccine allowed her to try something with the potential to protect her."

Dr. Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol, who were returned to the United States from Liberia after contracting Ebola, both accepted treatment with a secret serum, and are both said to be recovering from the deadly disease.

The doctors wrote in The Journal that there are several medications and vaccines that have proven effective in animals exposed to Ebola, and medical experts in wealthier countries are able to discuss developing and approving the products, and argued that African nations should have the same chance.

They called for the World Health Organization, as the only group with the necessary international authority, to take on a greater leadership role, saying it could help African nations develop protocols for the use and study of experimental drugs for treatment and prevention.

The WHO on Wednesday convened a meeting in Geneva to discuss new methods to fight the Ebola outbreak and to determine whether to issue a global health emergency, reports BBC News.

If a health emergency is declared, it could involve detailed plans to isolate and treat Ebola cases, as well as placing official travel restrictions on areas affected by the spreading virus, which is spread through contact with blood and other bodily fluids.

In their Journal column, the doctors called for the West to more quickly test drugs and vaccines, and even if the results are too late now, studies could begin quickly when another Ebola epidemic starts.

"Ultimately, the only way of discovering whether these new interventions are effective will be to test them in an Ebola epidemic," they wrote.

Even so, experimental drugs are no substitute for standard control and containment methods, they wrote.

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