Ebola patients buying survivors’ blood from black market, WHO warns

Updated 10:48 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
02:23 - Source: CNN
Ebola survivor blood on black market

Story highlights

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed at least 2,400 people

The WHO says it's working with affected nations to eliminate the black market trade of blood

Convalescent serum is said to have antibodies that can fight the deadly virus

Though unproven, desperate patients are doing whatever it takes

(CNN) —  

As hospitals in nations hardest hit by Ebola struggle to keep up, desperate patients are turning to the black market to buy blood from survivors of the virus, the World Health Organization warned.

The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has killed at least 2,400 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – the countries most affected by the virus.

Blood from survivors, referred to as convalescent serum, is said to have antibodies that can fight the deadly virus. Though the treatment is unproven, it has provided some promise for those fighting a disease that’s killing more than half of those it has infected.

“Studies suggest blood transfusions from survivors might prevent or treat Ebola virus infection in others, but the results of the studies are still difficult to interpret,” the WHO said. “It is not known whether antibodies in the plasma of survivors are sufficient to treat or prevent the disease. More research is needed.”

Convalescent serum has been used to treat patients, including American aid worker Rick Sacra, who is hospitalized in Omaha, Nebraska. He got blood from Kent Brantly, a fellow American who survived Ebola. Both got infected when they were helping patients in Liberia.

But unlike their situation, patients in affected nations are getting blood through improper channels. The illicit trade can lead to the spread of other infections, including HIV and other blood-related ailments.

“We need to work very closely with the affected countries to stem out black market trading of convalescent serum for two reasons,” Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, said this week.

“Because it is in the interest of individuals not to just get convalescent serum without … going through the proper standard and the proper testing because it is important that there may be other infectious vectors that we need to look at.”

’Just sitting, waiting to die’

Heath experts have declared the disease a global emergency and criticized the international community for a lax response.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced the United States will send troops, material to build field hospitals, additional health care workers and community care kits to affected nations. The United States will also create a facility to help train thousands of health care workers to identify and care for Ebola patients.

“Men and women and children are just sitting, waiting to die right now,” Obama said.

Hospitals and clinics in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – the countries hit hardest by the outbreak – are overwhelmed by what the WHO is calling the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.

“Here’s the hard truth. In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before. It’s spiraling out of control,” Obama said. “If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us.”

What you need to know about the Ebola virus

There is also a concern about the possibility that the virus could mutate into an even more dangerous form.

Ebola currently transmits only though contact with bodily fluids; a mutation that allows the virus to spread through the air would pose a catastrophic threat to people worldwide, health experts say.

Meanwhile, a French volunteer with Doctors Without Borders contracted Ebola in Liberia and will be taken to France for further treatment, the group said Thursday.

A private American plane will be used for the evacuation, according to the organization, which is known by its French acronym, MSF.