Scientists have developed two effective treatments that could help conquer the ongoing Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — the second-worst outbreak in history.
Doctors announced that two patients in Goma, a city near the Rwandan border with over 2 million residents, have been “cured” using the new treatments on Tuesday.
Ebola has been said to be incurable, and doctors have resorted to treating symptoms in the past, rather than the virus itself. However, the results of the treatments have been promising, and doctors believe that they could be effective for up to 90% of patients.
"From now on, we will no longer say that EVD (Ebola virus disease) is not curable. This advance will, in the future, help save thousands of lives that would have had a fatal outcome in the past,” Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, general director of the country’s federal medical research institute, told reporters.
There are now close to 2,800 confirmed cases of Ebola in the DRC, according to the World Health Organization. In the last year, over 1,800 people in and around the country have died as health workers have struggled to contain and treat the disease. But scientists are slowly making progress in fighting the virus.
In November, scientists began a trial, testing four different types of treatment to nearly 700 patients in four different cities. Two of the treatments were found to have a significantly lower mortality rate, proving far more effective than the other drugs.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and lead researcher in the Ebola treatment trial, said early administration of the drugs proved to be even more successful.
"It means we do have now what looks like treatments for a disease which, not too long ago, we really had no therapeutic approach at all," he said at a press conference.
Due to the overwhelmingly positive results of the trial, scientists said on Monday that they have ended the trial so that all patients can receive the two most successful treatments. Additional research will be conducted in order to determine which of the two drugs will have the best results.
“The more we can learn about these two treatments, the closer we can get to turning Ebola from a terrifying disease to one that is preventable and treatable,” Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a co-chair of a WHO committee evaluating Ebola therapeutics, said. “We won't ever get rid of Ebola but we should be able to stop these outbreaks from turning into major national and regional epidemics.”
There are a number of challenges that have contributed to the spread of the virus and hindered treatment, including displacement from violence and a lack of funding and resources for treatment centers. Many Ebola patients are also in remote locations that are difficult for health workers to access.
However, one of the biggest factors remains the general mistrust of the government and health workers in local communities. Some Congolese people believe that health responders are actually trying to steal their blood or body parts to practice witchcraft under the guise of treating ebola, while others doubted the existence of the deadly virus altogether. This has also led to a number of attacks on health workers and treatment centers.
Experts believe that the high death rates also contribute to the mistrust. With the success of the new treatments, there is new hope that more patients will seek treatment, instead of staying in their homes and unknowingly infecting family members.
“Now we can say that 90% can come out of treatment cured, they will start believing it and developing trust. The first ones to transmit this information will be the patients themselves,” Muyembe-Tamfum said.
However, the new developments are not considered a complete cure for Ebola, according to Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.
“It gives us a new tool in our toolbox against Ebola, but it will not in itself stop Ebola,” Ryan told reporters.
In addition to therapeutic treatments, community involvement, prevention measures, vaccination, and surveillance of infected people are also needed to stop the spread of Ebola, CNN reported. Nevertheless, this is the closest researchers have come to finding a cure for the deadly diseases.
"It's not one answer,” Ryan said. “But we've taken a huge step forward today.”