Ebola: Early, Intensive Treatment Boosts Survival
Virus launches assault on multiple organs, keeping patients hydrated is often key, experts say
In contrast, most viruses tend to target one specific organ, Hirsch and Norman said. For example, influenza goes after the respiratory system.
But Ebola attacks every organ system, including the heart, lungs, brain, liver and kidneys, Norman said. The virus even attacks a person's blood, thinning it and causing Ebola's trademark bleeding from multiple orifices.
And the impact in terms of overall illness is "additive," Norman said. "Every time you add another organ system that's failing, a person's chance of survival goes down exponentially."
The human body responds to this multiple-pronged attack by initiating a massive and intense inflammatory response -- which actually adds to the damage being done, Hirsch noted.
"It's a combination of the viral destruction and the inflammation that takes place in response that's so life threatening to us," he said.
Ebola's ravages are such that even young, healthy patients, who usually can fight off most serious illnesses, have a high death rate, Hirsch said.
Pumping fluids into patients remains the best front-line treatment for Ebola, to limit the damage caused by inflammation, Hirsch explained.
Beyond that, doctors must pay close attention to the patient and be ready to treat whatever organs are on the verge of failure, Hirsch and Norman said.
It doesn't sound like much, but this basic care can dramatically enhance chances of survival.
"If you look at the overall statistics, the mortality rate is around 50 to 60 percent, but if you get out into remote areas the mortality rate increases to around 90 percent," Norman said. "I think that reflects the fact that if more care is given and care is given early, the more survival improves."
Indeed, there was a rare moment of good news from aid agency Doctors Without Borders, NBC News reported Wednesday. In its latest update on the West African outbreak, the group said it was closing its Ebola treatment center in the Guinea town of Telimele because no new cases have been reported for the past three weeks.
"During seven weeks, 21 people with the disease were admitted to the center, with an astonishing 75 percent of patients making a recovery," Doctors Without Borders said. "Without medical care, as few as 10 percent of patients could be expected to survive."