Ethical issue: Who gets experimental Ebola drug?

Ethical issue: Who gets experimental Ebola drug?
Nigeria's Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu speaks to the House Committee on Health during a public hearing on the Ebola virus at the National Assembly in Abuja on August 6, 2014.

The use of an experimental drug to treat two Americans diagnosed with Ebola is raising ethical questions about who gets first access to unproven new therapies for the deadly disease. But some health experts fear that debate over extremely limited doses will distract from tried-and-true measures to curb the growing outbreak, like more rapidly identifying and isolating the sick.

The World Health Organisation is convening a meeting of medical ethicists next week to examine what it calls "the responsible thing to do" about whatever supplies eventually may become available of a medicine that's never been tested in people.

At least one country involved in the outbreak is interested in the drug. Nigeria's health minister, Onyenbuchi Chukwu, said at a news conference that he had asked US health officials about access but authorities say the manufacturer would have to agree. CDC Director Tom Frieden "conveyed there are virtually no doses available," a CDC spokesman said Wednesday.

President Barack Obama said Ebola is controllable and the US and its allies are working to help overwhelmed public health systems in West Africa take the needed steps.

Asked about the experimental drug, Obama said all the information isn't in: "We've got to let the science guide us."

There is no proven treatment or vaccine for Ebola, which so far has infected more than 1,700 people and killed more than 930 in West Africa in what has become the worst outbreak of the viral hemorrhagic fever.

"How many times have we found magic therapies that ended up ... doing more harm than good?" cautioned University of Minnesota professor Michael Osterholm, who advises the US government on infectious disease threats.

"Vaccine and drug treatment right now is not going to be the main way you bring this to a stop," he said.

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