Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Ethics in a Time of Ebola

By Michael Cook

The Ebola outbreak has revealed a number of ethical issues that need to be sorted urgently.

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Of all the calamities that a society can experience, war included, plague is probably the most frightening and socially disruptive. In the late 14th century the Black Death killed 30–50% of Europe’s population, leading to decades of depopulation and social upheaval. The 1918 influenza epidemic killed 50–100 million people, many of them young and healthy. In more recent times, AIDS, SARS and the H5N1 bird flu have created panic verging on national emergencies.

So it is no surprise that the Western world is taking an acute interest in the west African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where Ebola has killed hundreds of people. The mortality rate is 50–90%, and the agony of the afflicted is terrifying.

In this situation, you might think that bioethicists would throw ethical scruples to the winds. In fact, the Ebola epidemic has led to a lively debate about a whole range of issues.

Ethics of access to experimental drugs.
There is no proven cure for Ebola, and at the moment all that can be done is to provide comfort and keep victims hydrated. One drug that looks promising, ZMapp, is made by a small American company and has never been tested on humans. Besides, it takes weeks to produce and only enough for two patients was available when the epidemic broke out.

Under normal circumstances it would be absolutely...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.