WHO endorses use of convalescent blood therapies against Ebola

Sept. 29, 2014

Even as the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging aggressive research into drugs to treat and vaccines to prevent Ebola hemorrhagic virus, it also is sanctioning the use of convalescent blood therapies for people with Ebola—that is, the injection of the whole blood or plasma of Ebola survivors into patients battling the disease. In an official statement released last week, WHO officials noted that “major questions need to be answered about the safety and efficacy of convalescent therapies, and the feasibility of implementation in countries with shattered health systems and an acute shortage of medical staff” and that the “WHO is also being asked to assess whether rapid scaling up of convalescent therapy is feasible to an extent that could begin to reduce the estimated 70.8 percent case fatality rate….” Despite those cautionary words, the WHO, in effect, reaffirmed its assertion of a few weeks ago that “the use of whole blood therapies and convalescent blood serums needs to be considered as a matter of priority.”

In its statement last week, the WHO further notes that “some partners and donors are asking for rough estimates of what needs to be in place to support rapid implementation on the largest possible scale….They have questions about the number of staff needed and their training requirements, safety risks and how to manage them, laboratory capacities and how to enhance them, specific needs for equipment and supplies, and what all of this may cost.” Agency officials have indicated that the WHO plans to issue guidelines this week regarding convalescent therapies in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.

Convalescent blood therapies were used sporadically during the Ebola outbreaks of 1976 and 1995, with mixed and scientifically inconclusive (because there was no control group) results. Reportedly, the technique was used with two of the Americans who were brought to the United States for treatment, in combination with experimental drugs and supportive care. Read the WHO statement in full.

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