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Liberian doctors to get US experimental Ebola drug

12 August 2014, 07:10

Monrovia - Liberia announced on Monday that it would soon receive doses of an experimental Ebola drug and give it to two sick doctors, making them the first Africans to receive some of the scarce treatment in a spiralling outbreak.

The US government confirmed that it had put Liberian officials in touch with the maker of ZMapp, and referred additional questions to Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc.

In a statement, the California-based company said that in responding to a request from an unidentified West African country, it had run out of its supply of the treatment.

Also Read:Jonathan urges Nigerians not to panic about Ebola

The news comes as anger is growing over the fact that the only people to receive the experimental treatment so far have been Westerners: two Americans and a Spaniard, all of whom were evacuated to their home countries from Liberia.

Late Monday, the World Health Organisation said 1 013 people had died in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Authorities have recorded 1 848 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of the disease, the UN health agency said.

The updated WHO tally includes figures from 7-9 August when 52 more people died and 69 more were infected.

There is no Ebola vaccine or treatment available, but there are several in development besides ZMapp. That treatment is so new that it hasn't been tested for safety or effectiveness in humans. And the company has said it would take months to produce even modest quantities.

It was unclear how much of the treatment would be sent to Liberia.

"The US Government assisted in connecting the Government of Liberia with the manufacturer," the US Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement. "Since the drug was shipped for use outside the US, appropriate export procedures had to be followed."

‘Çompassionate use’

The Liberian statement, posted on the presidency's website, said it was also receiving an experimental treatment from the World Health Organisation. It was unclear if this was also referring to ZMapp or another treatment.

In the past few weeks, the experimental drug was given to two American aid workers diagnosed with the disease while working at a hospital that treated Ebola patients. On Monday, officials in Spain disclosed that the treatment was also given to a Spanish missionary priest who fell ill while working in Liberia.

The Americans are said to be improving, but there's no way to know whether the drug helped, or if they are getting better on their own, as others have. Around 40% of those infected with Ebola are surviving the current outbreak.

Also Read: Could Zmapp be the cure for Ebola?

But some called for the untested drug to be given to Africans, too. The outbreak was first identified in March in Guinea, but it likely started months earlier. It has since spread to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone, and possibly to Nigeria.

"There's no reason to try this medicine on sick white people and to ignore blacks," said Marcel Guilavogui, a pharmacist in Conakry, Guinea. "We understand that it's a drug that's being tested for the first time and could have negative side effects. But we have to try it in blacks too."

Some are using Twitter to demand that the drug be made available.

"We can't afford to be passive while many more die," said Aisha Dabo, a Senegalese-Gambian journalist who was tweeting using the hashtag "GiveUsTheSerum"on Monday. "That's why we raise our voice for the world to hear us."

The ethical dilemmas involved prompted the UN health agency to consult on Monday with ethicists, infectious disease experts, patient representatives and the Doctors Without Borders group.

Most participants in the closed teleconference were from developed countries, but Uganda and Senegal were represented. The World Health Organisation said it would discuss the results of the meeting at a press conference on Tuesday.

Companies can provide experimental drugs on a "compassionate use" basis, usually after they have been fully tested in humans. The Food and Drug Administration approves such uses in the US, but has no authority overseas. Ultimately, the companies alone decide whether or not to share their products.

Spain's Health Ministry said it obtained ZMapp this weekend with company permission to treat Miguel Pajares, a 75-year-old priest evacuated from Liberia and placed in isolation on Thursday at Madrid's Carlos III Hospital.

"The medicine was imported from Geneva where there was one dose available in the context of an accord between the laboratory that developed the medicine, WHO and (Doctors Without Borders)," the ministry said, invoking a Spanish law permitting unauthorised medication for patients with life-threatening illnesses.

‘Certain death’

Spanish authorities refused to comment beyond the ministry's statement, but Geneva University Hospital told The Associated Press it was involved in getting the drug to Madrid.

The evacuated American aid workers, Dr Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, have been improving at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital. They got the treatment after their international relief group Samaritan's Purse asked Kentucky BioProcessing, which produces it for Mapp Biopharmaceutical.

The treatment is aimed at boosting the immune system's efforts to fight off Ebola. It is made from antibodies grown inside tobacco plants

A Sierra Leone official said they had not asked for the drug, but the other governments said they want any treatment that might help patients recover, despite the risks of unproven medicines.

"The alternative for not testing this is death, a certain death," Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told The AP in an interview before the announcement.

Guinea said on Monday it wants some, too.

"Guinean authorities would naturally be interested in having this medicine," said Alhoussein Makanera Kake, spokesperson for the government committee fighting Ebola.

Also Read: Spanish Ebola patient gets experimental drug

Ebola is spread through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of a sick person. It begins with symptoms including fever and sore throat and can escalate to vomiting, diarrhoea and internal and external bleeding.

In other Ebola developments on Monday:

- An African nun who worked with the infected Spanish priest died from Ebola in Liberia, their Catholic aid group said.

- A nurse who treated Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian-American who flew into Nigeria and died last month, also died of Ebola, Nigerian health authorities said, raising the number of locally confirmed Ebola cases to 10. Nigeria is monitoring 177 contacts of Sawyer to contain the outbreak. The WHO has yet to confirm any Ebola cases in Nigeria.

- Ivory Coast, which shares borders with Liberia and Guinea, banned direct flights from the infected countries and said it would increase health inspections and enforcement of its borders, but stopped short of closing them entirely.

- George Weah, a Liberian former FIFA world player of the year, joined awareness efforts by recording a song titled "Ebola is real," with proceeds going to the Liberian Health Ministry.

- AP


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