Experimental Vaccines – The Ethics Debate on When and How to Use Them

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zmapp1By now, the entire planet has been alerted to the devastating rampage of the most rampant and lethal outbreak of Ebola in history. The virus is predominantly focused in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria. Stunningly, the deadly virus has begun to stretch its bloody fingers into other nations including England, and now within a handful of cases, the United States.

First discovered in a region around the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in 1976, the virus has erupted many times in the past 38 years. Check the CDC's Outbreaks Chronology: Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever for a complete timeline. However this is the most widespread and rampant occurrence of the deadly virus that has ever occurred. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a total of 3069 suspected cases and 1552 deaths (as reported August 31, 2014). WHO has declared the outbreak an international health emergency. In fact, WHO just stated that the number of cases could reach 20,000!zmapp2

According to the International Health Regulations (IHR), an 'international health emergency' is one that is "an extraordinary event which is determined, as provided in these Regulations:

  • to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and
  • to potentially require a coordinated international response”. This definition implies a situation that: is serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action."

zmapp4Ebola - What is it and Why is it so Scary?

Start with an overview about the virus. Watch the BBC's In 60 seconds: What is Ebola? Next read Ebola virus explained: What is it, what are the symptoms and are there any cures? from The Independent (there is also a video clip to watch). CNN is another excellent site to visit to learn about the Ebola virus: Nine things to know about the killer disease.

For a deeper investigation into this virus, click through the 17 Things You Didn’t Know About The Ebola Virus (from AFK Travel).

 No Cure... But How about an Experimental Vaccine?zmapp3

Two American missionary workers infected with Ebola were given an experimental drug called ZMapp. Both Dr. Kent Brantly  and Nancy Writebol, after returning to the U.S., elected to take this as yet untested drug while at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. This drug appears to have saved their lives. Developed by a San Diego firm, this drug had never been tried before on humans, however it had shown positive results in minor experiments with monkeys.

Consider for a moment the implications of this scenario. Taking an experimental drug that has not even been tested on humans as yet. There are no prior cases to compare and the only results come from a small group of monkeys in a little known lab in California. This is certainly a life-altering decision to make.

zmapp5Finding a Cure

Knowing that any drug taken at this point to ease the symptoms of ebola are 'experimental' at some level, this leads into a very serious and lively debate about the ethics of human testing and vaccines. The experimental drugs are both exciting and foreboding in the same small dose. The promise of relief from the painful effects of ebola, yet what harmful effects might appear immediately or later on? And then the question remains, should the medical community have full access to studying each victim's response to the medicine? These are questions that can not easily be answered.

Browse the following articles; each discusses a fascinating scenario or presents a unique perspective.

Experimental drugs and vaccines poised to take on Ebola

Ebola: doctors pin hopes on experimental drugs to treat British patient

Study Suggests RNAi Drug Has Potential in Ebola Treatment

NewLink Genetics: Ready to test Ebola vaccine

Monkey study: experimental drug promising for Ebola-related virus even after symptoms begin

Experimental Drug Used for Ebola-Related Virus Shows Promise

Experimental Ebola Drug's Role in Americans' Recoveries Remains Unclear

As Ebola Outbreak Expands, These Experimental Drugs Could See Action

The Ethics of the Ebola Outbreak: Who Should Receive Experimental Treatment?

Franklin Graham: Saving Ebola doctor no ethical dilemma

Ebola Virus: Nigerian Patients to Be Given Experimental Drug

Opting Against Ebola Drug for Ill African Doctor

American Ebola patients treated with ZMapp experimental drug

Ebola: WHO gets access to experimental drug

More cases that go unreported?  WHO Warns of "Shadow Zones" and Unreported Ebola Cases

state of panic and paranoia...


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