When the outbreak began, there was some debate between the WHO and DWB about the value of these transfusions, which involve the donation of blood plasma from Ebola survivors. The thinking behind the treatment is that antibodies in the survivors’ plasma already know how to fight the virus, and therefore might help to decrease a new patient’s viral load and kickstart his or her immune system. I felt markedly better the day after receiving my transfusion, although my doctors said there’s no way to know for certain if it was a result of the procedure or simply a coincidence in the timing of my recovery.
Shevin Jacob, an infectious-disease specialist who has worked with the WHO in Sierra Leone and Liberia, says plasma transfusions are still considered an “investigational therapeutic.” There is some evidence that they work—in one well-known study from the mid-1990s, seven out of eight Ebola patients survived after receiving survivors’ blood—but there’s still not enough data to convince the WHO and other health organizations, many of which are hesitant to incorporate the procedure into existing treatment guidelines. “For us to say [that] everyone should be getting this therapy when we don’t know if it’s truly beneficial is almost unethical,” Jacob says. On the other side of the issue, Omoruto recalls being frustrated that she was not permitted to give transfusions from survivors to her patients, and remembers clashing with DWB over their potential treatment value.
To get definitive answers about the effectiveness of blood transfusions or experimental drugs, health officials say they would need to conduct studies with patients who are suffering from Ebola—a grim prospect, and one that would almost certainly go over poorly in West Africa, where many people are already suspicious of Western health workers. But Jacob, the WHO infectious-disease specialist, says the benefits of such studies could be enormous: “In the middle of an outbreak, doing a study seems almost crass, but if it helps you get answers you could maybe save more people,” he says. “The possibility of the outbreak ending and us not having a ton more information because of the barriers is real, and we might regret that eventually.”