During an Ebola outbreak in 1995 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, doctors took blood from people who were recovering from the virus and used it as a treatment for those who were still sick. Seven out of eight Ebola patients treated recovered.
Now the World Health Organisation(WHO) is exploring whether the same technique could be useful this time around.
How it works
The blood of Ebola survivors is taken in the same way blood is normally donated. The difference is that their blood contains Ebola antibodies. They have produced these antibodies, which give immunity that helps in beating the virus.
Red and white blood cells, along with a number of other cells are then removed from the blood.
The resulting serum is then given to patients still fighting Ebola. The antibodies help them suppress the virus and hopefully recover.
Producing a safe and effective serum treatment takes trained staff and laboratory facilities.
The WHO says it is working with partners in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – the worst affected countries – to develop this capacity.
It also needs to take into consideration the safety of medical staff, blood donors and the recipients by screening the blood for infections.
“Great care must be taken in assuring that the blood that is used for the transfusion is devoid of infectious agents of Ebola. Of course, also for Hepatitis and HIV and a few important pathogens,” said WHO Assistant Director General Dr Marie Paule Kieny.
The WHO has released guidelines on how the technique can be used safely and says it could be available to patients within weeks in Liberia.
Will it work?
It is still unclear how much of the serum can be produced.
Health systems in all three countries are desperately overloaded and lacking basic infrastructure. Laboratory equipment, skilled staff and basic refrigeration are all required.
It is also unclear if the production of the serum could meet demand, with some estimates suggesting there will be as many as 10,000 new Ebola cases each week by the end of the year.