The short answer unfortunately is “no.” Timely treatment is crucial to saving lives, but ultimately doctors’ options are considered “supportive therapy.” This means doctors maintain a patient’s levels of oxygen, blood pressure and hydration, and they treat any complicating infections that arise to keep the patient strong until their body overcomes the virus. One of the hardest aspects of this outbreak is that there is no proven cure or vaccine for Ebola.
This doesn’t mean people aren’t on the case. Many organizations are creating and testing different treatment options. Ebola is a virus, and viruses basically ride in the body’s cells. This makes it difficult for scientists to develop a drug that “kills” only the virus without also harming the cells carrying it. However, there are treatments that show promise in fighting the disease in animals. One such treatment is ZMapp, which you probably heard about when it was given to two Americans infected while working in West Africa. Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory has also developed an experimental drug called VSV-EBOV. Unlike ZMAPP, this drug can be administered before or after disease contraction, meaning it could potentially act as a vaccine and a cure, and the Canadian government has offered the World Health Organization (WHO) 800 to 1,000 doses.
It is necessary to point out that neither of these drugs has been formally tested on humans. After learning the two Americans who received ZMAPP are improving, it may seem obvious that the drug should be shipped to West Africa immediately, but the matter is not that straightforward. A Spanish priest who also received ZMAPP tragically did not survive. With different results and a sample size of only three, we can’t know for sure how well the drug works, or if it works at all on humans. It may be that the American patients are improving because their symptoms were recognized earlier or because of the high-level of care and attention they received in Atlanta, Georgia compared to the less-equipped facilities in West Africa.
ZMAPP, which according to varying reports is in scarce supply, is being shipped to the region. After weighing factors like the ones mentioned above, a WHO panel of experts stated it would be ethical to offer unproven drugs to West African countries because of “the particular circumstances of this outbreak” as long as certain practices like informed consent and transparency were followed.
It would be tremendous if ZMAPP proves effective. It would help control the virus more quickly, and it would save lives. But Ebola transmission can be stopped with soap and water, and doctors continually say that Ebola can be controlled through education and prevention. Africare has shipped more than half a million dollars in Personal Protective Equipment to help health care workers prevent transmission and stay safe, and we are developing campaigns to reach communities with key messages on how to stay healthy.