The Ethics of Eradicating Ebola

About a month ago, I wrote about the ongoing scientific debate over experiments with infectious diseases. My blog focused on the risks and rewards of such work — what is the potential gain for public health? What are the dangers of breeding deadly microbes? That post was prompted by news coverage of the West African Ebola outbreak. On Tuesday, I read a Reuters article that examines another set of ethical questions concerning vaccines and deadly diseases.

The situation in West Africa has only worsened. However, in that same time period, early, experimental Ebola vaccines have emerged and helped save the lives of two American doctors. In an effort to save lives, health authorities and pharmaceutical companies are attempting to roll out these vaccines in a matter of months, rather than years. In short, they will both deploy and test new vaccines at the same time. This raises immediate, unprecedented ethical concerns. Most importantly, it may force the scientific community to accept that longstanding protocols and procedures cannot always apply in times of crisis.

Reuters reports that the World Health Organization expects the first of these experimental vaccines to be administered in West Africa by January. These new ethical questions surrounding vaccine development are just some of the many ways in which Ebola is testing global public health. The coming months will be a unique – and telling – opportunity in medical history.

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