The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The black market for Ebola survivors’ blood

A health worker brings a woman suspected of having contracted the Ebola virus to an ambulance in Monrovia, Liberia, on Sept. 15, 2014. (REUTERS/James Giahyue)
Placeholder while article actions load

Ebola has infected nearly 4,800 people. It has killed more than 2,400. And a black market for the blood of its survivors is emerging in the epicenter of the outbreak in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Convalescent serum — serum collected from someone who has survived an infectious disease — has been used to treat Ebola victims. Most recently, it was given to 51-year-old American aid worker Rick Sacra from survivor Kent Brantly. Blood from Ebola survivors is rich with antibodies against the deadly virus, and since there is currently no approved drug to fight it, some have become desperate enough to take fate into their own hands and turn to the black market for the experimental serum.

But WHO is concerned about the illicit trade, since giving a patient someone else’s blood can cause anaphylactic shock and death or infect with other diseases such as HIV if the blood is tainted. For that reason, the United Nations health agency said it will work with governments to stamp out the black market, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said, and establish a safe system for collecting, storing and re-injecting blood.

The black market also has some worried about the fate of supplies shipped in from the outside. On Tuesday, as President Obama was set to announce a 3,000-troop commitment to Africa, Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council for Foreign Relations, told the Hill she was concerned the airdropped supplies might turn up on the black market. Officials did not say in which country the black market was found.

No medication has been approved or is readily available to treat Ebola, though an experimental treatment called ZMapp was used on Brantly and Nancy Writebol. For now, patients are given intravenous fluids, antibiotics and blood transfusions to help their immune systems fight back.

“We are supporting use of whole blood and convalescent serum to manage Ebola virus disease in the West African Ebola outbreak,” WHO spokesman Margaret Harris said. “Whole blood has already been used in a number of centers.”

It’s unclear how successful convalescent serum has been in treating Ebola, but with close to half of its victims still alive, the potential pool of donors is substantial. In addition to WHO’s work, doctors at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha are building a registry of survivors by blood type to help future victims, Bloomberg said. And the U.S. National Institute of Health is working on a vaccine.