Skip to main content

World Physician credits Ebola survival to experimental, Canadian-developed drug

The Globe's Geoffrey York is in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, as the nation worst-hit by West Africa's Ebola outbreak grapples with an overwhelming public-health challenge. Follow him on Twitter at @geoffreyyork for updates.

Ask Ebola survivors to tell their story and they struggle for words. Language seems inadequate.

"The weakness – I can't even describe it," says Senga Omeonga, a Congolese surgeon who became infected with Ebola in a hospital in Monrovia last month.

Story continues below advertisement

"The feeling in your body is horrible. You feel that your whole body system has stopped working. You become hopeless. You're just thinking about death."

In his many years of medical work in Liberia, Congo and elsewhere, Dr. Omeonga has suffered bouts of malaria and has seen almost everything in tropical medicine. But nothing, he says, feels like Ebola. He was feverish, vomiting, diarrheal and unable to eat. "You can't even get off the bed. When you get Ebola, you only think you're going to die."

Two things helped him survive the lethal illness. One was ZMapp, the experimental Canadian-developed Ebola treatment. He was one of just seven Ebola victims worldwide who received ZMapp before supplies ran out. He believes that the three doses of ZMapp he received intravenously in Monrovia last month were among the keys to his recovery.

The other crucial support came from his four children, three of whom live in Canada. "Daddy, you have to fight," they told him. "We need you. You're going to make it."

Those daily phone calls from Canada "gave me hope," he said in an interview. "It's what helped me to fight."

ZMapp, a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies, was developed at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. Of the seven people with Ebola who received the treatment, two died and five lived. Because clinical trials have not been conducted, it's impossible to say scientifically whether ZMapp saved his life, but Dr. Omeonga is convinced it accelerated his recovery.

The 53-year-old surgeon feels even more certain that ZMapp was crucial in saving a Liberian health worker, Kyndy Kobbah, who was in a coma in critical condition when she received it. "If it wasn't for ZMapp, she wouldn't have made it," he said.

"Everybody was amazed. Nobody gave her a chance to survive. She got her recovery because of ZMapp. If they can expedite the production of it, they should try, because we really need it."

Dr. Omeonga still sometimes feels weak and tired these days, about four weeks after his discharge from hospital, but he says he is gaining strength every day. And he is determined to return to work as a doctor in Monrovia, at the same Catholic hospital, St. Joseph's, where he has served for the past three years. The hospital was closed in August after nine of its staff and patients died of Ebola, but it is expected to reopen next month or in early November.

It didn't even cross his mind to abandon Liberia after surviving Ebola. "Now that I've recovered from Ebola, it wouldn't make sense to be selfish," he said. "I feel strongly that I want to keep helping the people here. Now that I have a second chance, I'll use it to help others. They really need us."

He has already volunteered to donate blood to Ebola patients. "The recovery period is the best time to donate blood, because that's when you have the full antibodies," he explains.

Dr. Omeonga's experience reveals the desperately weak state of Liberia's health system. His hospital director, Patrick Nshamdze, caught the Ebola virus from a patient in July, but his blood results gave a "false negative" – probably because of poor labelling or specimen collection in the testing process, Dr. Omeonga believes.

So as the hospital staff provided care to the dying director, they didn't take enough precautions, believing that he didn't have the Ebola virus. Several staff – including Dr. Omeonga – caught the virus from him, and Dr. Nshamdze died.

Story continues below advertisement

Health workers are among the most vulnerable in the Ebola epidemic. As of last week, 375 health workers had been infected with Ebola in four West African countries, and 211 had died.

This is because of three key factors, Dr. Omeonga said. First, there are severe shortages of protective equipment for health workers. Second, health workers have almost daily exposure to the Ebola virus. And third, their patients often conceal the fact that they have the virus.

"Some patients don't tell the truth," he said. "They come to you with a different story, like 'abdominal pain.' It's because of the stigma of Ebola. They think they won't be treated and they'll be sent away."

Global efforts to fight Ebola are falling far short, he said. "When I discuss it with my colleagues, we don't feel the impact of the international help. It's not coming fast enough. The numbers of cases and deaths are just going up. The international community needs to do more – and fast. A lot of hospitals are closed, and thousands of patients are in the community. Even if we go house-to-house, where are we going to put them?"

Yet his own story is an inspirational sign that the Ebola epidemic can be beaten. "There is a lot of hope," Dr. Omeonga says.

"I'd like to spread the message of hope. It's a deadly disease, but it doesn't kill everyone. The key is to diagnose it early and go to treatment early. If you do that, you can survive."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter