‘Ebola vaccine could be rushed through for 2015’
Hospitals in Europe are preparing for the possible spread of Ebola out of Africa as the World Health Organisation said a vaccine could be ‘rushed through’ by early next year.
Doctors at the specialised quarantine unit at Berlin’s Charite hospital today showed off their readiness, amid news that two Germans could be carrying the deadly virus.
One suspected victim was yesterday in isolation at a Hamburg hospital after coming down with a fever after a visit to Sierra Leone, where the virus has claimed 12 lives.
Another, a German medical student currently in Rwanda, is said to be showing signs of the disease, though should he in fact have Ebola it is so far unclear whether he would be flown to Germany for treatment.
Further east, soldiers from the Czech army Biological Defence Centre were also seen drilling for a possible Ebola outbreak in the Czech Republic.
They practised infection control, setting up quarantine areas and treating dummy ‘patients’ in the fear that the virus could spread to Eastern Europe. Their centre near Jablonné nad Orlicí, close to the border with Poland, is one of the few prepared to deal with a possible Ebola outbreak in the region.
And in China, border authorities have stepped up their infection control and quarantine facilities. As it rises to global economic dominance China has increased its trade with resource-rich African nations, increasing the possibility that an infected person could travel between the two countries.
Fears of the spread of the disease are not entirely unfounded. In the past few days news has emerged of a Romanian man who has been put in isolation in a hospital in Bucharest that specialises in infectious diseases on suspicion of having contracted Ebola in Nigeria.
And in Spain, officials said a Catholic priest infected with Ebola will be treated with an experimental drug already used on two repatriated Americans.
The drug, called ZMapp, arrived at Madrid’s La Paz-Carlos III hospital, where the 75-year-old missionary was being treated in isolation, the health ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
The Roman Catholic priest, Miguel Pajares, was one of three people who tested positive for Ebola at the Saint Joseph Hospital in Monrovia where he worked.
Ebola symptoms are similar to those of flu, and include fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and finally bleeding and death.
The preparations came as the WHO said a potential vaccine for the Ebola virus is being tested on humans and could be ready for widespread use by early 2015.
The hope for a breakthrough came as experts from affected countries prepared to meet this afternoon to discuss the use of experimental therapies for the illness.
Ebola kills 90 per cent of people who catch it, Western victims who have been flown home to their native countries have been given a new and experimental drug called Zmapp that could offer better chances of survival.
But doses of Zmapp are scarce, with a spokesman for the WHO telling MailOnline that at the moment there are just ‘a few doses of these drugs in Western labs’.
There is currently no licensed cure or vaccine for Ebola, one of the deadliest known viruses, but Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of the UN health agency, told AFP she expected a vaccine to be rushed through.
‘I think it’s realistic’ to expect it to be available by 2015, said Ms Kieny.
Jean-Marie Okwo Bele, vaccine chief at WHO, told French radio RFI on Saturday that British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline appeared set to start clinical trials of a vaccine next month.
He also said he was optimistic about making the vaccine commercially available.
‘Since this is an emergency, we can put emergency procedures in place … so that we can have a vaccine available by 2015,’ he was quoted as saying by AFP.
Nearly 1,000 people have died so far in West Africa in the worst outbreak of Ebola ever.
Health officials will meet for a video conference hosted by the WHO to discuss whether experimental treatments like Zmapp can be used in the efforts to contain the outbreak.
Three of the world’s leading Ebola specialists have already called for the experimental drug to be offered to infected people in West Africa.
Pointing out that the drug had been made available to Western patients before they were evacuated to their native countries, Peter Piot, who co-discovered Ebola in 1976, has said Africans should get the same chance.
But WHO spokesman Fadéla Chaib told MailOnline that the main question was whether it was ethical to use treatments in the field that have never before been tested on humans.
‘If yes,’ she said, ‘who will get these very scarce treatments?’
She denied suggestions that there was an inequality in access to the new drugs, saying that is was not a question of ‘white and black’.
‘How can you recommend using untested treatments on people in the middle of an outbreak?’ she asked. ‘We are talking about two people getting these treatments, but you don’t know what will happen if there are hundreds of people getting them.’
She added that the potential side effects of Zmapp on the elderly, pregnant women and people with underlying conditions were not yet known.
The race to find effective treatments for Ebola comes as governments in West Africa warned that people could begin starving as travel restrictions cause food shortages and soaring prices.
‘We are trying to cope,’ said Joseph Kelfalah, the mayor of Kenema, in an eastern district of Sierra Leone that is under strict quarantine along with nearby Kailahun, but he added that food prices were ‘escalating’.
Under the country’s ‘Operation Octopus’, some 1,500 soldiers and police have been deployed to enforce the quarantines, turning people away at checkpoints and accompanying health workers searching for people who may have contracted the virus.
‘Only essential officials and food items are being allowed in after intensive searches,’ deputy police chief Karrow Kamara told AFP.
Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are the countries hardest hit by the epidemic, which the UN World Health Organization has called an international health emergency.
Liberia has been particularly affected by food shortages since declaring its state of emergency on Wednesday. It, too, has deployed soldiers to restrict movement, notably from the worst-affected northern provinces to the capital Monrovia.
Sando Johnson, a senator in the province of Bomi, northwest of Monrovia, said the restrictions were ‘severe’ and warned people would die of starvation if they are not relaxed.
‘My country has been completely quarantined because soldiers don’t allow anyone to get out of the area and they don’t allow anyone to go there,’ he told AFP by telephone.
‘A bag of rice that sold for 1,300 LD ($14; £9) is now selling for 1,800 LD. The poor people will die of hunger, for God’s sake.’
Health workers have been tasked with raising awareness about the disease which causes fever and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding.
An emergency helpline set up by Liberia’s Ebola taskforce to provide information on the virus had received 1,800 calls by Friday.
‘Aside from lots of confusion, aside from sick persons, aside from the fact that we also want to create awareness, this call centre is there to create calm but to also disseminate information and to gather information that can be shared with the national task force,’ said Barkue Tubman, a spokesman for the centre in Monrovia.
The virus is spread by close contact with an infected person through bodily fluids such as sweat, blood and tissue.
In Sierra Leone, 10 motorcycle taxi drivers have been infected after unknowingly carrying Ebola patients, according to the president of the National Bike Riders Association, David Sesay.
The two-wheeled taxis, which put rider and passenger in close contact, are an indispensable form of transport in remote areas of west Africa.
Efforts to halt the epidemic have been stymied by ignorance, distrust of Westerners and false rumours.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has warned against spreading false information ‘which can lead to mass hysteria, panic and misdirection’.
Meanwhile, the disease appears to be spreading from its crucible in the West African countries of Guinea, Libera and Sierra Leone.
The first ‘suspected case’ was reported in Senegal, where a 27-year-old man with Ebola-like symptoms was placed in isolation in a hospital in the north of the country. The man later tested negative for the virus, a health official said.
Nigeria, West Africa’s richest and most-populous country, has reported 13 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola, whose incubation period ranges from two to 21 days.
It suspended flights into the country by the Gambian national airline on Sunday, saying the company’s efforts to screen for the virus were ‘unsatisfactory’.
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