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New hotbed of Ebola found in Congo as serum-treated doctor dies

Published time: August 25, 2014 18:35
Edited time: September 21, 2014 06:58
Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) health workers prepare at ELWA's isolation camp during the visit of Senior United Nations (U.N.) System Coordinator for Ebola David Nabarro, at the camp in Monrovia August 23, 2014 (Reuters)

Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) health workers prepare at ELWA's isolation camp during the visit of Senior United Nations (U.N.) System Coordinator for Ebola David Nabarro, at the camp in Monrovia August 23, 2014 (Reuters)

Officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) say that a second, separate outbreak of the deadly virus has occurred in the country. Meanwhile, a Liberian doctor treated with an experimental serum against the illness has passed away.

DRC Health Minister Felix Numbi said that two of eight people who died from a “hemorrhagic fever” last week have been diagnosed with a strain of the disease in postmortem lab tests. The death toll of the sudden epidemic in the country’s Equateur province has reached 13 in total.

"This epidemic has nothing to do with the one in West Africa,"
said Numbi. "The experience acquired during the six previous epidemics of Ebola will contribute to the containing of this illness.”

DRC, then Zaire, was where the virus, which eventually kills patients by literally liquefying their organs, was first discovered in 1976. Numbi said that medical cordons have been erected around the town of Gera, where the patients were identified.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1,400 people have died in the current West Africa outbreak, which may have started as far back as 2013 - more than the entire death toll of all the previous recognized epidemics put together. A report from the WHO last week said that the actual number of those infected, which stands at over 2,600, is likely to have been substantially underestimated.

In the meantime, one of a handful of people to be treated with the experimental ZMapp serum has died.

The Liberian Abrahim Borbor, a senior doctor at the Monrovia JFK hospital where dozens of staff have been infected, deceased on Monday. He was one of three Africans treated with the US-made pharmaceutical substance, but the fate of the others remains unknown.

Previously, ZMapp was hailed as a potential cure for the illness, after two American missionaries beat Ebola, which has a 47 percent survival rate, after being given the drug. A 75-year-old Spanish priest treated with ZMapp died last week.

While the success rate seems to give lie to the idea that it is a catch-all wonder drug, further live experiments are not imminent, as the drug manufacturer, Mapp, says it cannot produce more portions of the serum for months.

On Monday, Japanese company Toyama Chemical offered its own alternative antidote to the viral illness, a new anti-flu drug favipiravir. The WHO has encouraged manufacturers to re-purpose existing drugs to fight Ebola, and the Japanese pharmaceuticals makers, which is a subsidiary of Fujifilm, says that it is in possession of sufficient stocks to treat at least 20,000 patients.

Reuters / Thomas Peter

Conversely, the efficaciousness of favipiravir depends on the similarities between the biological spread mechanisms of flu and Ebola and previous trials on mice, but no certified research on humans.

Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, which have borne the brunt of the infection, continue to be subject to border closures and flight cancellations from their African neighbors. In theory, the measures are introduced to impede the spread of Ebola, but, on Monday, David Nabarro, the UN official in charge of fighting the disease in Africa, said that the cancellations made his job “a whole lot harder."

Nabarro predicted it will take another six months for the epidemic to subside.

The UN says that the reasons for why the disease continues to flourish concern both doctors and patients in West Africa. Relatives of those infected hide them or claim other illnesses to avoid being shunned, and refuse to transport Ebola victims to hospitals, fearing that they are “incubators” of disease. Many also practice burial rites that propagate the disease.

The doctors and nurses – more than 240 of whom have been diagnosed with the disease – suffer from shortages of gloves, masks and other protective equipment, and also forego safety procedures when dealing with patients, largely due to the fact that they had not been previously exposed to the illness, which had never been found in the region before.

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