Approximately 60 percent of individuals infected with Ebola have died since the latest outbreak in West Africa, a sad statistic representing almost 9,000 deaths over the last 7 months. Survivors count themselves among the lucky, but for many there is a mysterious syndrome linked to having Ebola, one that researchers have never before documented or investigated.
Doctors are calling it “post-Ebola syndrome,” or PES, and a growing number of survivors are reporting to medical facilities with the condition. Common complaints include joint pain, hair loss, memory loss, anxiety attacks, and an increase in eye pressure that affects vision.
“Since I was discharged I have felt this pain in my eyes,” Romeo Doe, a 29-year-old Ebola survivor told Reuters. “They, as you can see, are red; they are hurting me. I want the government to help me get back on my feet.”
Doe’s condition is not unique. Doctors in West Africa have seen survivors go blind, and some physicians indicate as many as half of all Ebola survivors report declining health post-infection. It is not clear at this time how long the symptoms last and how they are related to the Ebola virus itself. Some experts believe some of PES symptoms may be from other illnesses able to take hold after Ebola initially weakens the immune system. Other doctors feel Ebola itself may be causing an autoimmune response in some individuals.
Ebola and the autoimmune response
“With post-Ebola syndrome there is an autoimmune response: it’s revved up, and we don’t really know why,” Dr. Dan Kelly, founder of the non-profit organization Wellbody Alliance, told Reuters.
Materials from John Hopkins Medical Institutions explain autoimmunity, as the occurrence when the immune system attacks healthy living tissue. It’s something that exists in everyone to an extent. In healthy individuals it’s harmless and considered a universal phenomenon of vertebrates. Certain conditions and diseases, however, can increase that autoimmune response and cause a number of different symptoms. It is possible that Ebola triggers a hyper immune response that remains in survivors once the virus has been eliminated, and without a virus to target, healthy cells become victims.
Inflammation within the eyes can be a form of an autoimmune response.
Similar circumstances have been seen in other viral diseases, like Lassa virus, another illness found in West Africa. Lassa virus, better known as Lassa fever, is an acute viral hemorrhagic illness transmitted to humans from contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent waste. This illness has been known to have lingering effects such as nerve damage and loss of hearing.
As for Ebola, other epidemics have had individual case reports of possible PES, but researchers indicate those past epidemics were smaller and more deadly. Without a large pool of survivors to gather data from it isn’t surprising experts could not make a PES link sooner.