Diseases / Research

Fighting Ebola

By Siphokazi Zama

Ebola haemorrhagic fever is a disease caused by one of five different Ebola viruses. It has five different strains than can occur in both animals and humans. It is named after the Ebola River where it was first identified. It is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person or objects that have been contaminated by an infected person. It can also be passed through butchering an animal that had Ebola.

The world is currently gripped by the worst Ebola outbreak since the virus was discovered in Zaire and South Sudan in 1976. According to the World Health Organisation, the first outbreak claimed 431 lives. The current outbreak has been mainly affected West African countries such as Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gabon, South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Republic of the Congo (ROC), Guinea and Liberia and Mali.

It has also been identified in the United States of America and Spain. But it has come from people who have been to West Africa and were infected in the West Africa. The current outbreak has claimed over three thousand lives and it shows no signs of stopping.

This humanitarian and world health crisis has left governments and pharmaceutical companies scrambling for a cure to stop the spread of this deadly disease.

The great difficulty with finding a cure for Ebola lies in the fact that scientists have not found the infection-related receptor. According to Zhang and Wang, in order for a virus to thrive in the body, it has to inject itself into a host cell. Therefore when the host cell replicates itself, so does the virus. For a virus to inject itself to a host cell, the virus first has to attach to a protein that is called a receptor that is on the surface of a host cell.

To fight the virus, one first has to identify the virus’ corresponding receptor so that you can prevent it from binding to the host cells. If you do that, that then the virus cannot replicate and therefore spread throughout the body. For Ebola, scientist has not been able to identify what the receptor is therefore they cannot find a way to stop it.

Furthermore, another reason that the cure for Ebola has not been found is that there is not enough funding to take the experimental trials from animals to humans. A vaccine that has been found to work is ZMapp, however the US regulatory agency has refused to dispense the vaccine in West Africa due to safety concerns.

However, in August, the World Health Organisation agreed that due to the circumstances of the outbreak, it is ethically acceptable to provide untested drugs to people. The drug (ZMapp) has been effective in treating Nancy Writebol and Dr Kent Brantly who were working as aid workers in Liberia at the time of the outbreak.

This raises the question of who should receive the drugs first. The argument held by many is that if it can be given to two American citizens, it should also be given to the thousands of Africans who are dying because at the current moment, there is no alternative treatment.

Doctors are currently treating people with Ebola using several methods. The first of these is treating people symptomatically. This means treating them as their symptoms arise. The second method is transfusing blood from an Ebola survivor to a person that is currently infected. The survivor’s blood is naturally full of antibodies that have fought and won against the disease.

The problem, is that with an outbreak like the current one, there are not enough survivors to donate blood to infected people. Furthermore, this method of treatment has not been proven to be 100% successful in treating the virus. That is why this is not considered a viable form of treatment for Ebola.

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