Wednesday April 19, 2017

Canadian doctor Rob Fowler recognized for life-saving treatment in Ebola outbreak

Mortality rates went from 80 per cent to less than 40 per cent after an Ebola treatment was changed. Canadian Dr. Rob Fowler is being recognized with the Royal College Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award for his part in that change.

Mortality rates went from 80 per cent to less than 40 per cent after an Ebola treatment was changed. Canadian Dr. Rob Fowler is being recognized with the Royal College Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award for his part in that change. (Doug Nicholson)

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When Canadian Dr. Rob Fowler arrived in West Africa shortly after the Ebola outbreak began in 2014, he saw an opportunity to change the way patients were treated.

As an ongoing consultant for the World Health Organization, Dr. Fowler was one of the first international doctors to help treat infected patients. With the increasing number of people getting really sick, he says there were not enough people to help care for them.

"A lot of the original health-care workers that started to treat patients themselves had become sick and many had already died," Fowler tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Dr. Rob Fowler and Dr. Tom Fletcher

Dr. Rob Fowler and Dr. Tom Fletcher, providing clinical care to patients with Ebola in Guinea, March 2014. (royalcollege.ca)

The mortality rates went from 80 per cent to less than 40 per cent in part because of Fowler's contribution to changing the Ebola treatment. His work is being recognized with this year's Royal College's Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award.

​Fowler says he and a colleague, Tom Fletcher, wanted to focus on creating a treatment that would make infected patients well enough to survive the acute stage of the illness through the first couple of weeks.

"So that their body could clear the virus after making antibodies ... and that required a lot more aggressive care than people were used to."

At the time Fowler explains, there was concern this approach would put healthcare workers at risk needlessly for a condition that people felt was ultimately going to lead to death in patients that were infected.

But by the end of the summer of 2014, Fowler says, people finally came to recognize it was not acceptable to just let people die without taking aggressive measures — resources were needed.

Dr. Fowler and group

Dr. Rob Fowler with members of the WHO Clinical Management Training and Mentorship Team in Freetown, Sierra Leone, December 2014. (Courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada)

"It wasn't for many months later that I would say we really had the first semblance of what I would call intensive care units in West Africa, in Sierra Leone where you would look around and recognize … those sickest of patients get better."

Fowler credits Canada for being a leader in the search for an Ebola vaccine and anticipates success imminently.

"The one that is the most advanced, and the one that has gone through clinical trials in humans actually was developed by and large in Canada, at the public health agency and at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg," he tells Tremonti.

"And this is a credit to folks that have worked there for years, who have taken a disease that doesn't you know cause many people to get sick and have said, 'we want to focus on this.'"

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.