World experts race to deploy experimental Ebola drugs

4th September 2014, Comments 0 comments

World health experts met in Geneva on Thursday for urgent talks on fast-tracking experimental drugs and other ways of reversing a raging Ebola epidemic in west Africa.

Some 200 health experts were gathering over two days to discuss the merits of eight experimental treatments and two vaccines against the infectious disease, which has already killed more than 1,900.

No fully tested and approved treatments exist yet for Ebola, leading to the World Health Organisation to condone the rushing through of new cures -- although it is not yet clear how broad or quick an impact they can make.

The meeting came a day after the WHO warned that the death toll in the epidemic, which is centred on Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, is still rising.

A key issue at the Geneva conference was to determine what therapies and vaccines are in the pipeline and how rapidly they can meet the desperate need.

"The current west African Ebola outbreak is unprecedented in size, complexity and the strain it has imposed on health systems," WHO said in a statement, acknowledging the "intense" public demand for a treatment.

- 'Extraordinary measures' -

The WHO said "extraordinary measures" were in place to accelerate the pace of clinical trials on the drugs -- most of which have yet to be tested on people -- but warned new treatments were not expected to be ready for widespread use before the end of 2014.

"Until then, only small quantities of up to a few... doses/treatments will be available," the WHO said in a working document at the meeting.

The list of potential therapies includes the experimental serum ZMapp, which has been given to about 10 frontline health workers who contracted the virus, three of whom recovered.

Its stocks have been exhausted, but WHO said a few hundred doses could potentially be ready by the end of the year.

Samuel A. S. Kargbo, from Sierra Leone's ministry of health, described the frantic impatience in his Ebola-struck country.

"Everybody keeps asking why isn't this medication made available to our people out there?" he told AFP.

"Our doctors who have been treating patients are also dying, and it's not made available... Everywhere people are asking: when is it going to be made available," he said. "The question is 'When?' because people think it should be now."

A. Nasidi, project director at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, said that the Geneva meeting's discussion of new drugs "gives a lot of hope to the African people affected and those who are in panic."

"So people say at long last, the world wants to address the issue."

- Outbreak rising -

The race to ready experimental drugs comes as affected countries are struggling to contain the outbreak, which was first detected in Guinea at the start of the year.

"As of this week, we are reporting 3,500 cases confirmed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and more than 1,900 deaths -- and the outbreak is rising," WHO chief Margaret Chan told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

The latest toll represents a significant increase from the 1,552 deaths and 3,069 cases reported by the Geneva-based organisation just days ago.

At least 30 more people have died in a separate outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nigeria, whose relatively strong health system has seen progress in battling the outbreak, reported a seventh death on Wednesday.

The country was given added cause for concern on Thursday as the WHO warned an outbreak in its oil producing hub of Port Harcourt could spread more fiercely than in the financial capital, Lagos.

The UN health body said the arrival of the virus in Port Harcourt, which is 435 kilometres (270 miles) east of Lagos, showed "multiple high-risk opportunities for transmission of the virus to others."

However, in Geneva, Nasidi expressed hope that once transmission in Port Harcourt was harnessed "we are going to be exiting the outbreak in a few weeks."

Nigeria is one of five countries in West Africa hit by Ebola, although the majority of the deaths since the start of the year have been in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

© 2014 AFP

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