Few, if any, treatments exist for many contagious diseases

The early symptoms of an Ebola infection include The early symptoms of an Ebola infection include fever, headache, muscle aches and sore throat. It can be difficult to distinguish between Ebola and malaria, typhoid fever or cholera. Only in later stages do people with Ebola begin bleeding both internally and externally, often through the nose and ears. Photo Credit: AP

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An experimental medication with no discernible track record was administered last week to two Americans who were whisked home from the epicenter of the West African Ebola outbreak.

The drug, developed through a technologically advanced technique, was identified only in January as a potential treatment for the viral infection now sweeping through four African nations.

In the absence of clinical data, no one knows with certainty how well the cloned medication works. There is nothing else in medicine's arsenal to combat Ebola, a problem that applies not only to that disease but an ever-growing list of emergent infections. Few, if any, treatments exist for contagious conditions smoldering in global hot zones:

Exotic forms of flu in China and Southeast Asia.

A respiratory illness with high mortality in the Middle East.

Lassa fever, a West African hemorrhagic viral infection.

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Chikungunya fever virus, once relegated to East Africa, but now an epidemic in the Caribbean and recently established in Florida.

Old diseases in new places: dengue fever and West Nile.

No vaccines or medications exist to treat any of them.

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"We need to spend time studying emergent infections with an eye toward developing antimicrobial medications and vaccines," said Dr. Janet Hearing, an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Stony Brook University's School of Medicine.

Exotic infections are no longer relegated to remote parts of the world. Virtually any infectious agent is just an air flight away, Hearing and other experts say.

"The interconnected nature of our world today makes the Ebola virus a greater threat internationally than it might otherwise be," said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.

Although officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week chances were minuscule that Ebola would make it into the United States, the agency was hot on the trail of another West African pathogen earlier this year.