STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Bad news first, here. The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed more than 1,500 lives this year. But then there's some good news. Researchers have made major progress. They have deployed an experimental vaccine that has proven extremely effective. And now they're closing in on a possible cure for Ebola. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Modet Camara is from Guinea, and back in 2014, he helped out with the West Africa Ebola outbreak there, the biggest ever known. He was horrified by how little he could do for his Ebola patients. Now he's working at a treatment center in the Congo outbreak helping to oversee a new study that fills him with hope.
MODET CAMARA: (Through interpreter) It's the best chance we've had since Ebola was discovered in 1976 to finally find a cure that can save people from this disease. We've never done a study like this.
AIZENMAN: They're testing four experimental treatments. Three of them consist of antibodies, immune system proteins that researchers think could destroy the Ebola virus. One of these antibodies was actually extracted from a person who had contracted Ebola in Congo during an outbreak there in 1995.
ANTHONY FAUCI: It was a patient who did well, naturally recovered.
AIZENMAN: Dr. Anthony Fauci is director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
FAUCI: We brought the patient here to the NIH, drew their blood and the cells in the blood that were making this antibody that is protecting this person.
AIZENMAN: The idea is inject copies of this antibody into a newly infected person, and maybe it'll knock out Ebola for them. Fauci says, to have results, this study will need 500 participants at the three treatment centers in the clinical trial. So far, they've tested the four medicines in more than 340 people.
FAUCI: I would imagine before this outbreak is under control, it is likely that we would have an answer as to which of them actually work.
AIZENMAN: Beyond the study, health authorities have also made the medicines available to anybody who comes to an Ebola treatment center. About 600 people have gotten them that way. But the research is also hitting the same obstacle that has made this outbreak so hard to end. It's taking place in a part of Congo that's seen constant clashes between the government and armed groups. Several times, Ebola treatment centers, where the study is taking place, were violently attacked.
FAUCI: We had to interrupt the trial. We had to put a pause on it until the safety issues were addressed.
AIZENMAN: The years of conflict have also made many people wary of authorities, and by extension, health workers. Camara, the doctor, who works with the aid group ALIMA, says that means patients often don't seek help for Ebola until they're very sick.
CAMARA: (Through interpreter) Today we just lost a 4-year-old boy, a pregnant woman and a father who was the breadwinner for the whole family.
AIZENMAN: Almost as soon as the three were brought to the center, they were enrolled in the trial and given the experimental therapies. But Camara says their organs were already failing. Within 24 hours, they were dead.
CAMARA: (Through interpreter) To see our patients die like this, when we know that we have medications that could probably have saved them if they had arrived sooner, frankly, as a caregiver, it's extremely painful.
AIZENMAN: And he says it points to a larger lesson from this outbreak. Scientific advancements won't make much of a difference, he says, unless we can win people's trust. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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