WHO: Ebola Outbreak ‘Vastly Underestimated’

Davy James, Associate Editor
Published Online: Friday, August 15, 2014
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World Health Organization cautions outbreak could last for several months.

As the number of confirmed and suspected cases of the Ebola virus in West Africa climb to nearly 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a warning that the scale of the epidemic has been vastly underestimated.

WHO’s latest figures indicate 1069 deaths from the disease, with 1975 confirmed and suspected cases in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, though the agency said support from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in contact tracing and monitoring has aided in reducing the number of additional cases.
WHO cautioned, however, that efforts to stop the spread of the virus will continue for the foreseeable future.

“WHO’s operational response plan extends over the next several months,” the organization said in a press release distributed on Thursday. “Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak.”

Response efforts to the crisis will include a massive scaling up of efforts to gain support from individual countries, disease control agencies, and the United Nations, WHO said.

As WHO uses public health measures to slow the spread of the disease, researchers continue to push ahead with the development of a vaccine following the decision by a WHO ethical panel  that there is a moral obligation to use experimental treatments on infected patients.

Earlier this week, Canada announced it will donate up to 1000 doses of an experimental drug called VSV-EBOV to aid in halting the spread of the virus. The chairman of the company licensed to develop the vaccine, NewLink Genetics Corp, said that doses of the drug could be produced by the tens of thousands within a few months.

Two other experimental drugs, BioCryst Pharmaceuticals’ BCX4430 treatment and Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp’s TKM-Ebola treatmen , are either close to or in the initial stages of clinical trials. Supplies of a third experimental drug, ZMapp, which showed promising results in treating 2 infected American aid workers, have now been exhausted as efforts to produce additional doses of the drug have been increased.

The International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) said this week in a press release that conflicting reports of the death toll indicate 1 pharmacist and 4 pharmacy technicians have died from the community pharmacy sector in Sierra Leone, while another report claims there has been only 1 Ebola-related death of a technician who was working in a community pharmacy in 1 of the disease epicenters. The group noted that pharmaceutical outlets in the regions most affected by the outbreak have closed.

FIP added that pharmacies in Liberia have experienced a surge of people seeking essential medicines, as many have expressed reluctance to go to hospitals and clinics after health care workers became infected. Elsewhere, awareness campaigns in Liberia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone seek to caution pharmacists to be on alert for Ebola symptoms and use basic preventive measures while referring all suspected cases.

“Pharmacists, as the first point of care for many people, have an important role to play in such emergencies, not only in terms of vigilance but also on a wider scale such as raising awareness and knowledge and providing advice to travelers,” said Luc Besançon, CEO and general secretary of the FIP, in the release.

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