On Tuesday, a Gulfstream air ambulance jet arrived at Dobbins, bringing Nancy Writebol to join her co-worker in Emory’s isolation unit, one of only four in the U.S. designed for the care of those with highly infectious diseases. The two had contracted Ebola while treating patients in Monrovia, but began improving even before they returned to the U.S.
Dr. Kent Brantly, from North Carolina, was working with Ebola patients in Liberia when he recognized symptoms and isolated himself. His co-worker, Nancy Writebol from Texas, who had worked as a hygienist decontaminating those entering and leaving the hospital, was also infected.
Ebola has been ravaging the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and now Nigeria. The virus is highly contagious. and first presents itself with fever and muscle aches progressing to diarrhea and vomiting. Later, the kidneys and liver fail and patients begin bleeding from their eyes, nose, ears, mouth or rectum. Anyone who comes in contact with their body fluids (blood, urine, saliva or sweat) or their clothing is at risk. The virus was originally known to kill up to 90 percent of those infected, but with better care, they have brought it down to 60 percent. There is no vaccine or FDA-approved treatment for Ebola.
Both Brantly and Writebol gave consent for an experimental drug developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Inc. The drug had not been tested in humans, but had performed well in small experiments with monkeys. The serum was developed by exposing mice to parts of the Ebola virus and then harvesting the antibodies generated within their blood.
Three vials of ZMapp, as the serum is called, were flown into Liberia at subzero temperatures. The medicine had to be thawed out naturally (taking from eight to 10 hours) and given in an IV. Dr. Brantly, 33, requested they give the first dose to Nancy Writebol, 59, as he felt his younger age made him better able to fight the disease. However, he broke out in a rash and his breathing became labored. He called his wife to tell her goodbye, fearing he was dying. Brantly’s worsening symptoms caused doctors to give him the first dose and within 20 minutes to an hour, there was a marked improvement. The next morning, he was able to get up and shower, and arriving in Georgia, he walked (with assistance) into Emory’s isolation unit.
The first dose given to Mrs. Writebol did not cause as miraculous of a turnaround, however, after a second dose, she was walking with assistance and had her appetite back. Her son, David Writebol, said last week that although they were thinking of funeral plans, they now “have reason to be hopeful.”
Dr. Jorge Rodriguez says that even though both Ebola patients were visibly improved after taking the drug before they returned to the U.S., it must not be viewed as a miracle cure. “We do not know if these patients are naturally getting better, or whether the serum is really doing something.” He was glad the patients were brought to a hospital where many tests could be done, as it is standard to go through a clinical trial process to ensure a drug is safe before it is given to humans. A vaccine in the very early stages of development “has a series of scientific and ethical implications,” explained Doctors without Borders. Doctors are pledged to “do no harm” and with untested drugs they cannot be sure that the experimental treatment would not do more harm than good. However, on July 30, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency allotted additional funding to the pharmaceutical company because of the “promising results.”
By Laurie Stilwell