CONAKRY, Guinea, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- In Guinea, one of three West African countries hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic, an international team of scientists is working to determine if the blood of Ebola survivors can be used effectively to treat patients.
Led by Belgium's Institute of Tropical Medicine, researchers are focusing on whether the blood of survivors containing antibodies can be transferred to patients successfully, thereby bolstering their immune systems.
The World Health Organization supports these radical efforts to combat Ebola.
The experimental blood-based vaccines could become available in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone within the next few weeks. Moreover, such transfusions would be particularly critical in West African nations where public health systems were already grossly inadequate prior to the start of the epidemic.
WHO's assistant director general Dr. Marie Paule Kieny cautioned recently that the utmost safety must be considered in relying upon such a revolutionary treatment. "Great care must be taken to ensure blood from the transfusions is devoid of infectious agents for Ebola as well as HIV, hepatitis and other dangerous pathogens," she said.
Kieny asserted that no large-scale trials of vaccines will likely occur until this January at the earliest. And even then, Kieny said, "We're talking about tens of thousands of doses, not millions," for trials that would target high-risk populations, such as "healthcare workers but also burial teams or family members or contacts of known Ebola cases."
Of course, these treatments, even experimental, can't come quickly enough, as WHO now estimates 10,000 reported cases of Ebola, with a death toll that is rapidly approaching 5,000 people.
Meanwhile, there is growing concern that Ebola will continue spreading in West Africa, affecting nations such as the Ivory Coast, which borders both Guinea and Liberia.
"There is no magic boundary at the border," assessed Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "We shouldn't be surprised if we see cases."
Borders cannot contain Ebola but they are presenting enormous obstacles and logistical nightmares for health workers. Olawale Maiyegun, the African Union's Director of Social Affairs, said Thursday that the first teams of African Union volunteer doctors and nurses have only just reached Liberia and Sierra Leone due to travel restrictions, even though the AU announced they would be sent in early September. The team for Guinea still hasn't been able to depart.