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Ebola the search for a cure.

Pooley, Will.
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About this work


In Atlanta, US, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussions take place about how to tackle the ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014 - the worst ever seen. Scientists are racing to find a cure. A male British nurse who contracted ebola in Sierra Leone was flown back to the UK and taken to the Royal Free Hospital in London. Dr Michael Jacobs from the Royal Free talks about what happened. Will Pooley was given an experimental drug and survived. Looking back to the origins of the disease; patient zero was probably a child who died in Guinea, West Africa; his family also died with the same symptoms together with the nurses who treated them. Scientists believe that the virus is carried by fruit bats and transferred to humans by ingesting infected bush meat. The epidemic was confirmed 14 weeks later which makes the job of responding more difficult; Dr Inger Damon from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the task of controlling the outbreak. In Guinea, Medecins Sans Frontieres are managing an ebola treatment centre. A nurse, Cokie van der Velde, comments on the difficulties of treating patients with many layers of protective clothing (for example, 3 layers of gloves); this is amply illustrated by the heavily clothed staff and the destitute patients. The disease involves diarrhoea, vomiting and internal bleeding (not shown). There is a computer generated animation of the progress of the disease which is rapid and often fatal. Healthy patients can survive in 50% of cases but the disease takes its toll within 12 days. Unfortunately diseased corpses are still contagious which has proved difficult when family members want to pay their respects and Sandra Smiley from Medecins Sans Frontiers reports on the cultural problems faced by outside agencies such as theirs dropping in and essentially occupying the village whilst the disease is raging. In 1976 the disease was discovered by Professor Peter Piot, now director of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, when he was working in Antwerp. A Belgian nun in the Congo died of a mysterious disease which required further investigation. Piot travelled to the Congo and the Mission Station where she died. They shot some amateur film of the conditions upon arrival; many people had already died. They arrived in the rainy season and they filmed black and white footage of people dying in front of them. One of the means of transmission was clearly the re-use of needles in the ante-natal clinic (there was an acute shortage), the clinic was popular with villagers. Also the practice of washing infected bodies before death was speading the disease. This was all in the context of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West; the fear was that the disease could be used as a biological weapon. In 1980, Horizon visited Porton Down, where specimens of the live Ebola virus were held. These days this part of the laboratory is no longer under military control and Dr Tim Brooks, Head of Rare and Imported Pathogens for Public Health England, is researching the virus with the view to looking for a cure and a vaccine. Diagnostic tools are crucial in identifying the disease. A team from the laboratory was sent to Sierra Leone, including Lisa Jameson, Research Fellow for Public Health England. The disease spread further to Liberia, overwhelming the medical teams - creating an acute, gruesome and humanitarian crisis. This is where Will Pooley contracted Ebola; first symptoms were fatigue, sore throat and temperature. The disease was taken from Monrovia to Lagos, Nigeria, creating another potential outbreak in the most populous city in Africa. In 2000 there was an outbreak in Uganda; four of the survivors talk about their experiences. Many others died; footage of treating patients at the time is shown (with minimal protective clothing) . Dr Leslie Loble, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Dr Julius Lutwama, Uganda Virus Research Institute, are researching the survivors' strong immune systems. There is significant interest in whether these survirors have lasting immunity from the disease. Samples are rushed back to Entebbe. In the US, a cure is in sight; Dr John Fankhauser, Deputy Medical Director of ELMA Hospital, talks about the two American missionaries (a doctor and health assistant) who contracted the disease (they survived). He accessed an experimental drug ZMapp which Dr Gary Kobinger, Head of Special Pathogens, National Microbiology Laboratory, Canada, happened to have with him whilst researching ebola in Africa. However, there were only three doses; enough for one person. Professor Charles Arntzen, Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University also found himself inadvertantly on the trail of a cure. He was working on Hepatitis B, then after 9/11 (the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York), Ebola became of research interest as a bio-threat. Kobinger, goes into the lab to look at the virus with the view to developing the body's ability to produce antibodies. Dr Aneesh Mehta, Emory University School of Medicine, received the two American missionaries in his hospital; one had already received a dose of the drug. The drug slows down the progress of the disease and allows the body to produce enough antibodies for the body to recover. After the American missionaries survived, there were ethical isues around treating American patients rather than West Africans. The stocks of the cure rapidly dwindled. The process for creating the treatment involves harvesting proteins from tobacco plant leaves. The difficulty is in scaling this activity up. Pooley was treated with ZMapp. Unfortunately the official figures for Ebola deaths are probably understated and a scientific trial can only take place in December 2014.


UK : BBC, 2014.

Physical description

1 DVD (54 min.) : sound, color, PAL.

Copyright note



Broadcast on 10 September, 2014

Creator/production credits

Produced and directed by Guy Smith. BBC Science Production.



  • English

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