A new study from the US National Institute of Health has revealed that Ebola survivors face long-term neurological problems even six months after recovery from the initial infection.
Though the World Health Organisation declared Liberia, the last country to be affected by the epidemic, after Guinea and Sierra Leone, Ebola-free in January, complications and challenges remain. As Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, acknowledged in a press release at the time: “Our work is not done and vigilance is necessary to prevent new outbreaks.” Of the nearly 30,000 infected, one in five were children, and 11,300 did not survive. With these devastating statistics in mind, it is vital that we gain an understanding of long-term problems survivors may face.
To that end, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Liberian Ministry of Health founded PREVAIL (Partnership for Research on Ebola Virus in Liberia). The partnership has launched three major research projects, with the first two focusing primarily on evaluating the safety and efficacy of vaccines and drugs developed to combat the disease. The study that yielded these latest findings, led by Dr Lauren Bowen of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), was carried out in collaboration with PREVAIL III, a natural history study that seeks to establish “how Ebola affects the health of survivors and the people they live with.”
82 survivors were recruited for the neurological study, with friends and relatives who had not been infected serving as a control group to determine whether symptoms were tied to the Ebola virus. Nearly all of them displayed neurological complications, ranging from abnormal eye movements (which afflicted two-thirds of survivors and may be indicative of minor brain damage) to hallucinations and suicidal ideation. One third showed signs of sensory abnormalities such as tremors, and more than half of thte participants reported weakness, muscle pain, memory loss and depression.
With a mean age of 35, the relatively young cohort makes these results even more striking, but the exact extent of Ebola’s contribution remains unknown. The virus is associated with severe neurological problems, which can include meningitis or falling into a coma, and there has been speculation that loss of blood at the height of infection may be responsible for the observed brain damage. The depression, reported by many survivors, could also be tied to intense social stigma—even after recovery, patients are often isolated from family and friends, with some forced to move when their history is discovered.
As these complications come to light, reducing such stigmas and preventing the spread of misinformation is more important than ever. The virus is still impacting survivors’ daily lives, and they will need a support system in place. Dr Bowen has emphasised the need for information and aid: “While an end to the outbreak has been declared, these survivors are still struggling with long-term problems. Ebola hasn’t gone away for these people.”