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The Globe and Mail

More testing needed to determine effectiveness of experimental Ebola drug

Nancy Writebol, a missionary who contracted Ebola at a Liberian hospital, is wheeled into Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Tuesday. Ms. Writebol is the second American with Ebola transported to the country for treatment. She has agreed to take an experiment drug.


A second American aid worker infected with Ebola arrived Tuesday in Atlanta, where doctors will closely monitor the effect of an experimental drug she agreed to take even though its safety was never tested on humans.

Nancy Writebol arrived from Monrovia, Liberia, in a chartered jet and was then taken in an ambulance to Emory University Hospital, just downhill from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She was wheeled from the ambulance in a stretcher. Three days earlier, Kent Brantly, also diagnosed with the virus, arrived at Emory and walked from an ambulance.

The two patients – being treated in an isolation unit – were infected despite taking precautions as they treated Ebola patients in West Africa, where the virus has been spreading faster than governments can contain it, killing nearly 900 people so far.

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And while family members said both Americans have been improving after the novel treatment, doctors at Emory have released no details about the experimental drug. Ms. Writebol's employer, the SIM USA charity, said Tuesday that she remains in serious but stable condition.

It's impossible to know whether the drug saved these workers from the hemorrhagic fever killing as many as 80 per cent of the people the virus is infecting in Africa. They could be recovering on their own, or for other reasons, including better medical care than many Africans get.

CDC Director Tom Frieden said experts aren't yet sure of the effect of the experimental drug. "Every medicine has risks and benefits," he said. "Until we do a study, we don't know if it helps, if it hurts or if it doesn't make any difference."

If the treatment works, it could create political pressure to speed through testing and production to help contain the disease in Africa. Dozens of African heads of state were meeting with President Barack Obama Tuesday at a summit in Washington. But it could take years before any treatment can be proven to be effective and safe, let alone mass produced.

The experimental drug being used on Dr. Brantly, 33, and Ms. Writebol, 59, was flown to Africa, and both patients got some before the long flight to Atlanta, on a plane that could carry only one of them at a time.

Ebola is spread by close contact with blood and other bodily fluids, and Ms. Writebol's duties included disinfecting doctors and nurses entering or leaving the Ebola treatment area. Her son, Jeremy, said he hopes her case "might help develop a cure and resources to help those who are suffering."

The virus is much less deadly when patients get top-flight care, experts say.

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The CDC has been criticized for not objecting to the arrival of Ebola victims on U.S. soil, but Dr. Frieden has emphasized that there is no threat of an outbreak spreading in the United States.

Ms. Writebol's arrival in Atlanta came a day after Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City said it was testing a man who travelled to a West African nation where Ebola has been reported. He arrived at the emergency room on Monday with a high fever and a stomach ache, but was in good condition, hospital officials said.

The New York City Health Department, after consulting with the hospital and the CDC, said the patient was unlikely to have Ebola.

Health officials near Columbus, Ohio, also reported that a female patient recently returned from abroad had been checked for Ebola, with tests coming back negative. Franklin County Health Commissioner Susan Tilgner said a hospital had tested the woman to rule out Ebola due to risk factors, which she declined to describe in detail.

She said the tests had taken a few days and declined to say to what country the woman had travelled.

With a report from Reuters

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