Since 1976, when the Ebola virus was first identified, doctors racing to remote villages in African forests have thought they had a reasonable idea of what those infected were facing. The disease was grim – a hemorrhagic fever which caused copious bleeding and often death – but some people could and did fully recover. Now that is in question.
When nurse Pauline Cafferkey was admitted back into the infectious diseases unit of the Royal Free hospital in London on 9 October, nine months after recovering from Ebola, and then became critically ill, all the previous assumptions about the long-term effects of this virus had to be torn up.
Doctors and scientists are amazed and appalled. It is horrible for Cafferkey and her family, but the implications of her new illness are much more wide-reaching. The UK has a world-class health service. Cafferkey’s family were angry that the possibility that her symptoms were linked to Ebola was not immediately picked up, but even though she did not have the usual fever and vomiting, within days the virus had been identified once more and she had been flown to specialised care.
But a resurgence of illness that did not look like classic Ebola in survivors in countries with fragile or collapsed health systems, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea or – for that matter – DRC or Uganda, which have had outbreaks in the past, would not have been recognised. It is entirely possible that people have died from Ebola complications unnoticed, months after their initial recovery, and more could still die.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at Nottingham University, is one of those who admits to real surprise. There are a lot of unknowns about Ebola, he said, “but I don’t think anybody would for one minute have expected complications quite as serious as they certainly appear. (Read more from “How a Woman’s Ebola Relapse Tears up Everything Doctors Thought They Knew” HERE)