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WHO holds urgent talks on Ebola treatments

World health experts meet in Geneva for talks on fast-tracking experimental drugs, as death toll rises in west Africa.

Last updated: 05 Sep 2014 09:49
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A WHO spokesman said the official death toll from Ebola was likely a gross underestimate [File pic]

World health experts are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland for the second day of urgent talks on fast-tracking experimental Ebola drugs, as doctors in the worst-hit African countries pleaded to be given the serums.

With no fully tested treatments for Ebola, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has endorsed potential cures like ZMapp to be rushed out.

"Everybody keeps asking why isn't this medication made available to our people out there?" Samuel Kargbo, from Sierra Leone's ministry of health, told the AFP news agency.

ZMapp has been given to about 10 health workers who contracted the virus, including Americans and Europeans, three of whom recovered.

Infographic: Just how deadly is Ebola?

Its stocks have been exhausted, but the WHO said a few hundred doses could potentially be ready by the end of the year.

"Our doctors who have been treating patients are also dying, and it's not made available," Kargbo said.

The two-day closed-door meeting of about 200 health experts in Geneva is discussing eight potential therapies, as well as two experimental vaccines.

'None clinically proven'

"None are clinically proven," the WHO stressed in a working document for the meeting, adding that "while extraordinary measures are now in place to accelerate the pace of clinical trials, new treatments or vaccines are not expected for widespread use before the end of 2014".

The agency warned that the death toll in the epidemic, which is centred on Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, was still growing fast.

"The outbreak is rising," WHO chief Margaret Chan told reporters in Washington on Wednesday, putting the death toll at "more than 1,900".

"The current west African Ebola outbreak is unprecedented in size, complexity and the strain it has imposed on health systems," the WHO said in a statement, acknowledging the "intense" public demand for a treatment.

The race to ready experimental drugs comes as affected countries are struggling to contain the outbreak, which was first detected in Guinea at the start of the year.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said the official death toll was likely a gross underestimate.

"Many deaths are in the community and are not being reported. It is estimated that there are two to four times as many people infected with Ebola as reported," he told AFP by email.

At least 30 more people have died in a separate outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

US doctor treated

In hardest-hit Liberia, which counts a 871 deaths out of 1,698 cases, medical sources said on Thursday that US doctor Rick Sacra, who was infected while working at the ELWA hospital in Monrovia, was en route to the airport to be repatriated.

Sacra, the third US aid worker to contract the virus, is expected to arrive on Friday at a Nebraska hospital for treatment in a special isolation unit.

He had opted to head to Liberia after hearing that two other missionaries were sick. He served with the North Carolina-based charity SIM.

Bruce Johnson, SIM's president, said Sacra had been receiving excellent care at a centre in Liberia, but that the Nebraska facility provides advanced monitoring equipment and has a wider availability of treatment options.

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