Experimental Ebola Treatments Present Ethical Dilemma

Experimental Ebola Treatments Present Ethical Dilemma

Doctors attempting to halt what has become the largest outbreak of Ebola in history are faced with an ethical dilemma. The virus is spreading so fast and so wide that doctors are considering the idea of using experimental treatments on humans, something that medical ethicists usually strongly oppose, but some doctors don’t feel they have much choice.

The dilemma was recently faced by doctors in the African nation of Senegal who are treating a patient from Sierra Leone, a doctor who contracted the virus treating Ebola patients. The doctors were reportedly considering the use of an experimental treatment named ZMapp.

This decision occurred on the same day another doctor from Sierra Leone died of the virus.

The Senegalese doctors ultimately decided not to use the experimental drug on their patient for fear that it was too risky. But the whole discussion forced the doctors into what they called “an impossible dilemma.”

Already over one thousand patients are known to have died from the disease, but these are just the cases that are known by authorities. Many more undiagnosed cases are suspected to be out in the African bush among people fearful of authorities.

It raises the tough question: should the doctors use an experimental drug on a live human, a drug that has never been tested on a human before, just because there seems to be no other option? Or should doctors stick to the tried and true, more ethical route of using only tested and known treatments?

Despite their decision not to go with the experimental solution, the doctors in Senegal aren’t the first to consider the question.

Earlier this week the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning that there is no end in sight to the Ebola outbreak. But in that same statement the WHO also noted that it was looking into the question of using experimental drugs to get ahead of the outbreak.

At the end of its August 11 statement, the WHO said it was “holding an emergency meeting with ethicists, scientific experts and lay people from affected countries to assess the role of experimental therapies in the Ebola outbreak response. Issues to be considered include the ethics surrounding use of therapies when safety is unproven, ethics governing priority setting for access to these therapies and principles for fair distribution.”

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at igcolonel@hotmail.com.