Ebola Survivors Could Be the Best Weapon for Fighting the Killer Virus

Why this British nurse is going back to the country where he got sick.

William Pooley. (Photo: Getty Images)

In July, British nurse William Pooley went to work at Kenema General Hospital in Sierra Leone, looking after Ebola patients.

He cared for people who were vomiting blood and patients with blood coming out of other orifices. He tried to clean and cover the sick but had no running water and no sheets or towels. He watched people die in understaffed, unsanitary, and overcrowded conditions. Then, after Pooley had worked at the hospital for about six weeks, he became infected with Ebola.

Pooley was flown back to the United Kingdom, held in a state-of-the-art isolation unit at the Royal Free Hospital in North London, and treated with the experimental drug ZMapp. He recovered after less than two weeks and was discharged from the hospital on Sept. 3.

Now, as the number of infections in West Africa threatens to grow exponentially, Pooley says he’s going back to resume the fight against the Ebola epidemic. Though his decision might seem reckless, the potential immunity of those who survived Ebola and a shortage of experienced health care workers in the region could make it both a rational and compassionate choice.

This week, Pooley spoke with volunteers heading to West Africa and told them about his experiences in Sierra Leone and his plans to return.

After the meeting, a journalist for The Telegraph asked him, “Why on earth are you planning to go back?”

“There’s still a lot of work to do out there,” Pooley replied. “I’m in the same or better position as I was when I chose to go out before.”

Almost 9,000 people in West Africa have been infected with the disease, and more than 4,000 people have died. Health workers are on the front lines of the fight against Ebola, and 233 have been killed by the virus. The World Health Organization has said that by December there could be 10,000 new Ebola cases a week in the region.

Many public health authorities believe Pooley and others who have survived Ebola could have a significant advantage when interacting with those who have the disease. There are no known cases of a survivor becoming reinfected, and in laboratory tests monkeys have stayed immune to Ebola for several years.

Pooley knows this. “It doesn’t seem likely that I would contract it again,” he told The Telegraph.

Compassionate care might not be the only benefit Pooley could bring to those suffering from Ebola. After recovering, Pooley traveled to the United States to donate blood to an American doctor named Kent Brantly, who was also infected in Sierra Leone. The experimental treatment is called “convalescent serum” and involves giving a patient antibodies from an Ebola survivor’s blood. The serum has not been through any clinical trials, but Brantly is now Ebola free.

Pooley is one of several people who beat Ebola and are now ready and willing to care for the sick. In Liberia, the WHO has been training Ebola survivors in a mock treatment center so they can be deployed to new and existing Ebola clinics. Whether or not they’re immune, they are uniquely equipped to help people who are sick because of their experiences.

After Dauda Fullah survived the virus that killed numerous members of his family, he started working in an Ebola ward in Liberia. Though Fullah may be immune to the virus, he still wears full protective gear—a plastic suit, goggles, and rubber gloves.

Fullah told NPR that he’s helping because other people cared for him while he was sick, “going in, sacrific[ing] their lives to fight for mine. So I have to do the same. I have that humanitarian feeling for those admitted here now.”

Pooley echoed this sentiment soon after he recovered from the virus. “As horrible as a lot of the stuff is, in a way there’s nothing like it for feeling satisfied at the end of the day,” he told The Guardian at his family’s home in Suffolk. “To know that you’re making a difference like that, it’s an amazing privilege, really.”