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American Fighting Ebola Receives Blood Transfusion From Survivor

The third American aid worker to catch Ebola in West Africa has been given two experimental treatments, doctors said Thursday. One of those therapies came from the blood of another American who recently recovered from Ebola.

Last Friday, Dr. Rick Sacra, 51, was flown to Omaha, Neb., in a special medevac plane after he caught Ebola in Liberia. The family doctor had been working at a maternity ward in the country's capital, Monrovia, when he got sick.

Of the three countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Liberia has been hit the hardest. The country has reported more than 2,000 cases and about 1,200 deaths, the World Health Organization said Monday.

When Sacra arrived at the Nebraska Medical Center, doctors said he was in stable condition. The next day, doctors gave Sacra blood plasma from Dr. Kent Brantly — another American aid worker who caught Ebola in Liberia.

Brantly was treated for Ebola at a hospital in Atlanta back in August. Doctors gave him and his co-worker, Nancy Writebol, the experimental drug ZMapp. Both of them recovered from Ebola. But it still isn't known whether ZMapp helped them. So far, the drug has been tested only in monkeys.

The idea is that Brantly's blood contains Ebola antibodies, which could help Sacra's immune system fight off the virus.

"We're hoping [the blood transfusions] jump-started his immune system," said Dr. Phil Smith, who directs the Biocontainment Unit at the Nebraska Medical Center. "To survive, you have to build up enough antibodies to neutralize the virus. ... We're hoping to buy him some time ... and give his immune system a boost."

Besides two blood transfusions from Brantly, Sacra has also received an experimental drug each night.

"In the absence of proven therapies for Ebola, we wanted to try everything we could," Smith said. But he wouldn't disclose the name of the experimental drug because there's only a small supply of it. And it's too soon to say whether the drug is helping.

"We don't know if this drug has had any effect at all," Smith said. "It's premature to speculate what the drug's effect was."

Right now, Sacra is in good condition, the team said. But he hasn't fully recovered, and it's unknown when he will be able to go home.

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Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.