The World Health Organization (WHO) says the scale, duration, and lethality of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have generated a high level of public fear and anxiety, which extends well beyond the region.
WHO in a press statement issued in Geneva Friday said such reactions are understandable, given the high fatality rate and the absence of a vaccine or cure.
Recent intense media coverage of experimental medicines and vaccines is creating some unrealistic expectations, especially in an emotional climate of intense fear, it said.
“The public needs to understand that these medical products are under investigation. They have not yet been tested in humans and are not approved by regulatory authorities, beyond use for compassionate care,” WHO said in the statement.
“Evidence of their effectiveness is suggestive, but not based on solid scientific data from clinical trials. Safety is also unknown, raising the possibility of adverse side effects when administered to humans. For most, administration is difficult and demanding. Safe administration of some requires facilities for intensive care, which are rare in West Africa,” it added.
WHO has advised that the use of experimental medicines and vaccines under the exceptional circumstances of this outbreak is “ethically acceptable”, noting that existing supplies of all experimental medicines are either extremely limited or exhausted.
While many efforts are under way to accelerate production, supplies will not be augmented for several months to come. Even then, supplies will be too small to have a significant impact on the outbreak.
WHO welcomes the decision by the Canadian government to donate several hundred doses of an experimental vaccine to support response to the outbreak, but said a fully tested and licensed vaccine is not expected before 2015.
Another source of public misunderstanding, especially in affected areas, comes from rumors on social media claiming that certain products or practices can prevent or cure Ebola disease.
The WHO said decades of scientific research have failed to find a curative or preventive agent of proven safety and effectiveness in humans, though a number of promising products are currently under development.
“All rumors of any other effective products or practices are false. Their use can be dangerous. In Nigeria, for example, at least two people have died after drinking salt water, rumored to be protective,” the statement said.
The most effective personal behaviors are avoiding well-known high-risk situations, knowing the symptoms of infection, and reporting early for testing and care. Evidence suggests that early supportive care improves the prospects of survival, WHO said in the statement.
The Ebola virus is highly contagious but only under very specific conditions involving close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or corpse. Most infections have been linked to traditional funeral practices or the unprotected care, in homes or health facilities, of an infected person showing symptoms.
Apart from these specific opportunities for exposure to the virus, the general public is not at high risk of infection, the statement concluded.