Although the Ebola epidemic has dropped out of the political news cycle here in the United States, it remains an ongoing tragedy in parts of Western Africa, where thousands of people have died. The virus has recently surged in Sierra Leone, infecting more than 500 people in just one week.
And according to some experts, the outbreak is currently being exacerbated by the assumption that trying to treat Ebola is completely hopeless — a grim outlook that isn’t entirely true.
There are no vaccines approved for Ebola, and news articles about the virus frequently reference the fact that researchers are currently scrambling to develop and test potentially effective treatments. Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, two specialist doctors argue that has created the false perception there’s absolutely nothing doctors can do to treat infected patients. This attitude amounts to “therapeutic nihilism,” according to Dr. Ian Roberts, who works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Dr. Anders Perner, an intensive care specialist at the University of Copenhagen.
Roberts and Perner point out that even without any drugs available for Ebola, there are still some basic measures that doctors could take to dramatically cut its death toll. By studying some of the health workers who recovered from Ebola on U.S. soil, scientists have concluded that fluid replacement appears to be critical to help patients beat the virus, which is something that can be expanded in clinical settings.
Ebola conjures grim scenes of infected people bleeding from multiple orifices. However, while that so-called “hemorrhagic syndrome” is perhaps Ebola’s most well-known symptom, most of the patients in this current outbreak aren’t actually experiencing it. In many cases, people are simply dying from the side effects of the virus’ other symptoms — specifically, the extreme dehydration and electrolyte loss that stem from so much nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The people who are surviving Ebola, on the other hand, are keeping dehydration at bay by forcing themselves to drink huge amounts of water. Although ingesting a gallon of water isn’t exactly an appealing prospect for patients who are struggling to keep food and drink down, it can end up saving their lives.
Along those lines, a simple and cheap rehydration solution — essentially, a mixture of salt, sugar, and water — can help Ebola patients maintain their strength, replenish their sodium deficits, and ultimately recover from the potentially deadly virus. The World Health Organization recommends that every Ebola infected person should be drinking oral rehydration solution every day.
Dr. Simon Mardel, a world-renowned viral hemorrhagic fever expert who’s been helping treat Ebola in Nigeria, told NPR this fall that the number of deaths from the virus could be cut in half if all health workers were trained about administering oral rehydration solutions. Roberts and Perner make a similar estimation in the Lancet this month. “A stronger policy focus on providing effective care for patients with Ebola virus disease is not only a humanitarian imperative, but could also help to bring the epidemic under control,” they conclude.
Amid the bleak headlines about the Ebola outbreak, oral rehydration could be a “low-tech and inexpensive approach that is potentially lifesaving,” according to NPR — and one that more people need to be talking about.