One Surprisingly Simple Way to Beat Ebola (That Isn’t as Simple as It Seems)

Nov 17, 2014 by

  Personal Health  


A seasoned relief doctor and prominent medical journal say that hydration is key to survival.

Photo Credit: Glenda/Shutterst

A medical adviser for the World Health Organization says that one of the best ways to keep from succumbing to Ebola is to drink water, and plenty of it. Dr. Simon Mardel, a veteran relief physician who is consulting on the crisis in West Africa says hydration is the key to beating the deadly virus until new treatments, which are still months or more away, are available.

But while that might sound simple, it’s not, cautions Dr. Mardel. It may still be hard for Ebola patients to stay hydrated while they’re experiencing bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Moreover, persuading a critically ill Ebola patient to drink might not be so easy.

“When people are infected, they get dry as a crisp really quickly,” Mardel tells Bloomberg News. “Then the tragedy is that they don’t want to drink.”

Mardel, a British physician, says that Ebola patients become “stunningly dehydrated” and would need to consume at least a gallon of liquids a day to combat the virus. However, he says, patients need to consume water slowly so it doesn’t cause nausea and more vomiting.

This opinion regarding hydration is echoed by a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine that says aggressive hydration methods are what helped save two health-care workers from the virus earlier this year.

The report says that hydration of three to five liters of intravenous fluids each day and electrolyte correction helped improve patients’ symptoms and marked a decline in the amount of virus detected in their blood. Both those patients, however, also received blood transfusions, one from an Ebola survivor, which the report says may have played a role in their recovery.

The two aid workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were treated with fluids and electrolytes after they were flown back to the U.S. for treatment.

While the report  recommends aggressive hydration, the authors say that care should be taken when a patient begins to suffer from “vascular leak syndrome,” which can lead to fluid pooling. The report also notes that common most intravenous fluids used for rehydration don’t have sufficient electrolytes and suggests supplementing care with oral potassium, calcium, and magnesium, especially for Ebola patients already suffering from large-volume diarrhea.

“It will be a tremendous challenge to bring to all patients the benefits of routine care, such as intravenous fluid and electrolyte support, as part of the response to this epidemic, but it must be done,” said the report’s authors.

Mardel has been a medical relief worker for more than three decades and has responded many to other viral outbreaks over that time. He adds that choosing the right painkilling medications is also important in the battle against the disease. But some, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, are not recommended because they can help contribute to hemorrhaging.

In Nigeria, where hydration was a key component to care of Ebola patients, the death rate was lower than in other West African countries, note medical researchers. Only  about 40% of those infected with the disease in Nigeria died compared to the aggregated death rate across West Africa, which stands at 78%.

Currently, Nigeria is Ebola free, but Dr. Mardel alsotold the U.K.’s Telegraph that the disease may be ravaging more of West Africa than has been reported. The disease has recently entered Mali, where two cases have now been reported.

“In my heart I think Ebola is in more countries,” Dr. Mardel told the paper. “The unrecognized cases are likely to be propagating even outside of the ‘at risk’ countries.”

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that the number of Ebola cases can skyrocket in coming months. The CDC says that it is not unlikely that we could see as many as 1.4 million cases by January 2015.

Mardel says that besides the deadly consequences of the virus, there is also a deadly “epidemic of fear” over the disease. In Sierra Leone, there are reports of hospitals being abandoned and rioting. In September, notes the Telegraph, eight health-care workers and journalists trying to educate the public about the disease were hacked and beaten to death with machetes and clubs.

“You have to change attitudes and beliefs,” Dr. Mardel says. “You only do that with really smart educational tools and techniques. The scale on which it has to be done is enormous.”

Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, Raw Story and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on Facebook.

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