Texas nurse Nina Pham, who was infected with the Ebola virus, says she has had ongoing health problems since being cured, an outcome that experts say is not uncommon for Ebola survivors.
Pham told the Dallas Morning News last month that she has experienced hair loss, body aches and insomnia in the months following her infection. She was diagnosed with the disease in mid-October after treating a patient from Liberia who had Ebola. Pham was hospitalized in isolation for several weeks before she was declared Ebola-free.
The long-term effects of Ebola have not been well studied, and doctors will probably learn a lot more about the disease’s aftermath from the current outbreak in West Africa, the largest in history, said Jesse Goodman, an infectious-disease expert and a professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center.
But it is clear that Ebola survivors can experience temporary health problems as a result of their battle with the disease, Goodman said.
These ailments — which include body and joint aches, and fatigue — are “the kind of side effects you might expect from any very serious infection,” Goodman said.
These symptoms may result, in part, from the body’s release of immune-system chemicals called cytokines. These chemicals fight the disease but make people feel sick. Dehydration, low blood pressure and nutrition problems that people experience during an Ebola infection can also injure a person’s muscles and other tissues, Goodman said.
Muscles and nerves also could be directly injured by the virus and take time to recover, Goodman said. Ebola survivor Nancy Writebol has said that she experienced nerve pain after her infection.
“It wouldn’t be surprising, in a very severe infection that is spread all over the body, to have some long-term damage to sensitive tissues like nerves,” Goodman said.
In addition, after a patient is cured, the virus may persist in some parts of the body, including the eyes, and cause inflammation and vision problems, Goodman said.
After the 1995 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about 15 percent of survivors developed eye problems, such as eye pain and vision loss. In the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, in which nearly 24,000 people have been sickened and more than 9,800 have died, there have also been reports of survivors with vision problems, according to the World Health Organization. These eye problems typically respond well to treatment, but if left untreated, they can lead to blindness, Goodman said.
Although it can take months, most patients who have survived the disease do fully recover, Goodman said.
In the wake of the outbreak in West Africa, there are now many more Ebola survivors than before, and studies of these patients should give doctors a better idea of how often lingering side effects occur and whether other problems can also occur, Goodman said.
Part of the Ebola response effort should include educating people about the complications of Ebola and ensuring that patients have access to care to prevent consequences such as blindness, Goodman said.
Attention should also be paid to the social and economic hardships that Ebola survivors face, Goodman said. Several organizations are working to help Ebola survivors make the transition back into their communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
— Live Science