Dr. Craig Spencer is a New York physician who contracted the Ebola virus while working with Doctors Without Borders in Africa. He was diagnosed on Thursday, and on Friday received a blood plasma transfusion from Ebola survivor Nancy Writebol, a health care worker who contracted the virus in August while doing volunteer work, also in Africa. Two other Ebola patients, Dr. Rick Sacra and Ashoka Mukpo, received blood transfusions from survivors and both have recovered. Writebol was treated with the experimental drug ZMapp at Emory Hospital in Georgia in August.
Spencer is at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. According to the hospital on Saturday, the doctor is “entering the next phase of his illness,” which is the appearance of gastrointestinal symptoms. Less than 24 hours after the transfusion, physicians were optimistic, as Spencer is awake and communicating. Spencer’s fiancee was also in the New York hospital due to concerns that she might have the deadly virus as well, but she has now been released to a 21-day mandatory quarantine in the couple’s Harlem home.
While a variety of experimental methods are being tried to treat Ebola, which presently has no known cure, the World Health Organization (WHO) has thrown its support behind blood transfusions, which is one of the more unusual of the methods currently being tried. WHO issued guidance last month on using blood or plasma of survivors to treat the virus. The treatment is called “convalescent plasma serums,” and theoretically works by giving antibodies from survivors to infected patients. Blood transfusions were used in the early 1900s to treat Spanish influenza, and are thought to be promising for other infectious diseases such as H1N1.
There are still questions as to whether the transfusions are the cause of the recoveries of Sacra and Mukpo, or whether they are coincidental. Some infected patients are receiving multiple treatments, which makes it difficult know which one actually works. No lab studies have really been done on the effectiveness of blood transfusions, but Thomas Geisbert, who is a University of Texas Medical Branch virologist, said they probably do not hurt. He said that Ebola patients are so exhausted and dehydrated, receiving a unit of blood might be helpful in itself. Some virology experts cite research that shows that antibodies are critical to beating the virus, meaning transfusions could be a good method, as well as one that is readily available.
Spencer flew to Guinea to treat Ebola patients on Sept. 16, returning to the U.S. on Oct. 17, reporting no symptoms. He rode subways, took a taxi and went to restaurants. He reported severe fatigue on Oct. 21, but was able to go running and bowling the next day. On Thursday, Oct. 23, he reported a fever, called Doctors Without Borders and the New York City Health Department. Emergency health workers rushed to Spencer’s apartment in full protective gear and immediately took him to Bellevue. The Ebola virus is said to not be passed on before symptoms appear, and then is only transmitted through blood and body fluids of a person who is ill.
By Beth A. Balen