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An outbreak of the Ebola virus continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since last May, the government says the virus has struck 72 people and killed almost half of them. Although other diseases kill far more people, none is more feared than Ebola. And as NPR's Richard Knox reports, nobody is more at risk than the health care workers who take care of the victims.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: There was a poignant piece of good news the other day, in the midst of the Congo's Ebola outbreak. A woman suffering from the disease gave birth in the 20-bed ward set up to isolate and treat victims.
DR. ALFONSO VERDU: It was the first time a pregnant woman was having a baby in an Ebola treatment center.
KNOX: That's Dr. Alfonso Verdu of Doctors Without Borders. He's speaking by satellite phone from Isiro, the ramshackle town in northeast DRC that's the epicenter of the outbreak. Unfortunately, the mother died after giving birth. Her infant survives, but has Ebola. There've been five new confirmed cases of the disease this month. So Verdu says everybody in the surrounding area is still being urged to take precautions.
VERDU: We ask the people not to shake hands, not to touch them, not to hug each other. The authorities are respecting that. But also, the people in the shops is respecting that.
KNOX: Nobody is at higher risk of Ebola than the doctors and nurses and health aides who care for its victims. Despite elaborate precautions, Dr. Armand Sprecher says health workers often come into contact with infected bodily fluids or accidentally stick themselves with contaminated needles.
DR. ARMAND SPRECHER: The survival rate of exposure to Ebola is, you know, like a needle stick injury, it's 100 percent fatal. Nobody's ever survived one of those.
KNOX: Sprecher works in the operations center of Doctors Without Borders in Brussels. He says the dangers force health workers to don moon suits and avoid all unnecessary contact with Ebola patients. And that just reinforces the perception that hospitals are places where people with Ebola go to die.
SPRECHER: You know, if you don't hang IV lines and do things that look medical, if you just put people in beds and walk around in protective gear and don't touch anybody, well, why would they want come there?
KNOX: And if infected people stay away from hospitals, that just keeps the epidemic going because the virus spreads so readily out in the community. But the grim truth is doctors can't do anything for Ebola patients except give them fluids and other supportive care. What's needed, he says, is an effective treatment.
SPRECHER: If you had something in the refrigerator, on standby, it might make it easier for the health care staff to engage with the patients, if they knew that there was something that might help them in the event of something awful happening.
KNOX: That might become possible. Fifty leading experts on Ebola and similar deadly viruses are gathering today and tomorrow at the National Institutes of Health outside Washington to assess several promising treatments for these diseases.
PETER JAHRLING: You know, this is really the first time we've ever all gotten together and addressed this problem.
KNOX: That's Peter Jahrling of the N.I.H., who's running the meeting.
JAHRLING: Whenever there's an outbreak and we go rushing into the scene to document what's going on, we're concerned that we really don't have anything specific to offer. And if we did have something specific to offer and had reasonable expectation that it would work, I think it would probably be of mutual benefit to try to figure out how to get that material where it needs to be.
KNOX: It's a big challenge. Animal experiments suggest treatment has to be given within 24 to 48 hours after infection, before symptoms appear. That's possible when the victim is a U.S. lab worker who has an accidental needle stick during a monkey experiment. But it's a different story when Ebola pops up in a remote corner of Africa and no one can be sure when someone was exposed.
And if researchers wanted to try a drug that had never been used in people before, officials in the affected country would have to be persuaded it was a safe and ethical experiment.
JAHRLING: These are the kinds of things that are going to come out in our workshop discussion, I think, whether you're going to, you know, treat one occupational exposure, or a village.
KNOX: The goal is to see if the groundwork can be laid for trying an experimental treatment for Ebola before the next outbreak or the one after that.
Richard Knox, NPR News.