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Ebola outbreak an ethical mine field

Monday - 8/11/2014, 4:47am  ET

WASHINGTON -- The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has turned into an ethical mine field.

Those fighting the disease have to decide many thorny questions, such as whether to use experimental treatments. And since any untested drug is likely to be available in tiny quantities, who should get access to a potentially life-saving medication?

The World Health Organization is bringing together top medical ethicists to assist in the search for answers. The panel meets via teleconference Monday and includes representatives of affected countries and others concerned with the outbreak.

Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, has been closely following the debate. He says the panel will likely focus on the use of drugs not yet tested in humans "because everyone is anxious about trying to control this epidemic."

He says any untested drug is problematic because "there is no way to safely predict its efficacy and no way to safely predict the harmful effects that may occur."

Two American health workers -- a doctor and a missionary who was helping with the care of Ebola patients in Liberia -- received a drug being developed by a San Diego firm before they were flown from Africa to Atlanta, where they are being treated in a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital. The company is said to have only a few doses left -- adding to the controversy over who should get an experimental drug if it does become available for patient use.

Donovan notes there was criticism of the decision to administer the untested drug ZMapp. He thinks that criticism was misplaced.

He says it's important to make sure there are people to tend to the sick -- if they become ill, there is one less person to take care of many patients. And if the care provider succumbs to the disease, it's less likely that anyone will take their place.

Read an Ebola fact sheet on the WHO website.

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