The devastation wrought by the worst recorded Ebola outbreak in history grows daily. As of Thursday, the deaths totalled 729 deaths in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but it’s far from over; ”Ebola is worsening in West Africa,” CDC director Tom Frieden said not once, or twice, but three times on Thursday.
Infectious disease experts are mobilizing, borders are shutting down, and, despite the fact that there is no cure for Ebola haemorrhagic fever (the illness caused by Ebola virus infection), health care officials are trying anything they can to help the stricken—especially those who put themselves at risk to save others. That means digging deep into the list of experimental methods the WHO, CDC and others have developed over the past few years to cure the deadly viral infection—including a simple but controversial therapy called immune plasma infusion.
In Monrovia, Liberia, 33-year old Dr. Kent Brantly of Forth Worth, Texas had been treating Ebola patients since June, as part of an international relief group called Samaritan’s Purse. But in mid-July, Brantly recognized that he himself was showing symptoms of Ebola. He isolated himself, and told the rest of the team of his suspicions; soon after, his diagnosis was confirmed.
On Thursday Brantly was given a shot at survival: a 14-year-old male Ebola patient who had been under Brantly’s care, and survived, donated a “unit of blood” to Brantly, according to Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham. “The young boy and his family wanted to be able to help the doctor that saved his life.”
The idea—novel, though not unprecedented—is that the blood (plasma, in medical parlance) of a survivor, full of antibodies proven to be strong enough to fight off the disease (i.e., immune), when transfused into an infected body, might help that body become immune itself. Though it sounds a bit like something Hollywood might have cooked up, there’s some science behind it—and an historical precedent that offers hope.