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Ebola: Why the death and suffering?

Current Affairs

Ebola: Why the death and suffering?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of deaths attributable to Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa was over 700 by the beginning of August with scores of infected and others suspected to be carrying the killer virus. Curtis Abraham reports. 

It came without warning. There was no mass dying of apes or antelopes in the lush Upper Guinean forest in the southern part of the West African country. There were no rebel fighters or soldiers returning from the forested battlefields in the Congo River Basin, as was the case with some previous outbreaks of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in East and Central Africa.

Instead it was the local delicacy of fruit bats that is suspected to be the origins of this current epidemic. Bats are reportedly the natural reservoir of the pathogen.  

Confirmed cases of EVD and a number of deaths have also occurred in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. 

But could some of the recent deaths and suffering in West Africa have been avoided? Some scientists answer in the affirmative. Ebola Virus Disease is one of the world’s most lethal diseases and outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests. EVD is what experts called a filovirus disease; emerging pathogens that cause viral hemorrhagic fevers.

The infection is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected animals or people, and its symptoms include high fever, debilitating fatigue, and uncontrollable bleeding from the eyes, the nose, and the mouth.

Health care workers can only provide supportive care in isolation. Doctors in white spacesuits administering rehydration salts and fluids, nutritious food, and isolation, are used to prevent the spread of the disease.

No cure is available but several vaccines are being tested, although none are available for clinical use. Medical charities such as Medicin Sans Frontières (MSF), can only provide supportive care. The US government has stepped up interest in infectious diseases such as EVD because of their potential use as weapons of mass destruction by terrorist organisations, state-sponsored actors and simply deranged individuals (the 2001 anthrax attacks killed five and infected 17 others and are widely suspected to be the work of a single individual).

EVD is classified by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a Category A bioterrorism agent.

Biomedical researchers working with the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and partly funded by the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) Joint Project Manager Transformational Medical Technologies (JPM-TMT) Office, have been developing preventative and curative drugs to combat any possible bioterror threat from EVD and other viruses.

However, despite lobbying from scientists before this latest outbreak, the drugs have not been put to the test. One leading candidate is TKM-Ebola, an anti-Ebola viral therapeutic, developed by the Canadian pharmaceutical company Tekmira under a contract with the US Department of Defense’s  JPM-MCS. TKM-Ebola, at its current stage of development, will not be effective in curtailing the spread of the infection, only reducing the likelihood of dying from the disease once you have already become infectious to others. However, by providing an incentive for people to go to the centres, say some experts, it will indirectly help prevent the further spread of the infection.

TKM-Ebola has shown a 100% success rate in monkeys. Back in mid-January, Tekmira announced that it has dosed the first subject in a Phase I human clinical trial of TKM-Ebola. The study was meant to evaluate the safety, determination of a safe dosage range, and identify any possible side effects as TKM-Ebola is absorbed in the body of healthy adult subjects. In March, the US Food and Drug Administration granted TKM-Ebola fast track status to speed up the drug’s development.

Dr Ian MacLachlan, Tekmira’s Chief Technical Officer, announced in a paper presented at the 17th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy in Washington, DC, that the company had successfully completed the single ascending dose portion of the TKM-Ebola Phase I Clinical Trial in healthy human volunteers and that there were no ill effects.

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