As the death toll from the current Ebola outbreak has topped 900 in four West African nations, several medical experts are pointing out that infected Africans deserve the same access to the experimental treatment for the virus that’s being given to the two Americans currently being cared for at Emory University Hospital.
The U.S. citizens who have come down with Ebola were flown to a special isolation unit in Atlanta and are receiving an experimental serum that hasn’t yet been approved by the government. The treatment has helped monkeys survive the deadly virus, which has killed about 60 percent of the people who have caught it over the past several months. These experimental treatments aren’t without some controversy; while a handful of potential Ebola drugs appear to be promising, they haven’t actually been tested in humans, and it’s not clear whether they’ll be effective. Still, there’s an obvious divide when it comes to who gets the chance to try.
Three of the world’s leading Ebola specialists — including one of the individuals who first discovered the virus back in 1976 — say that the residents of Western African countries should get the opportunity to see whether untested drugs could help them survive, if they consent to the treatment.
“African governments should be allowed to make informed decisions about whether or not to use these products — for example to protect and treat healthcare workers who run especially high risks of infection,” Peter Piot, David Heymann, and Jeremy Farrar wrote in a joint statement. All three are infectious disease experts at major public health organizations in Europe, and Piot was one of the scientists who discovered Ebola in what was then known as Zaire.
Health officials in Liberia, which has been hit particularly hard by the current Ebola outbreak, are also questioning the disparity between the medical treatment that Americans and Liberians are receiving. “This is something that has made our job most difficult,” the country’s assistant health minister, Dr. Tolbert Nyenswah, told the Wall Street Journal this week. “The population here is asking: ‘You said there was no cure for Ebola, but the Americans are curing it?’”
In their new editorial, Piot, Heymann, and Farrarr also urge WHO to take on “greater leadership role” by officially extending approval for untested Ebola drugs in Western Africa. The three infectious disease experts point out that the situation might be different if the deadly virus were currently killing hundreds of people in wealthy countries. If that were the case, medical agencies “would begin discussions with companies and labs developing these products and then make rapid decisions about which of them might be appropriate for compassionate use,” they write.
Indeed, Ebola is a disease that probably wouldn’t make it very far in more developed countries with sophisticated health care infrastructures. Ebola can only be spread through direct contact with bodily fluids; unlike the flu, for example, it can’t travel through the air. So, although the deadly virus has captured international attention, medical experts agree it doesn’t actually pose much of a risk to Western nations, where there are adequate medical resources to screen people for symptoms and enforce quarantines.
The reason that Ebola has been able to spread so far is specifically because Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria are impoverished countries without strong health care systems, as well as home to people who mistrust Western doctors and are wary of following quarantine requirements. “It afflicts poor African people who live in villages amid forest and are obliged by scarcity of options to eat bats, apes and other wild creatures, found dead or captured live,” David Quammen, the author of a book on pandemics, explains in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Ebola in Guinea is not the Next Big One, an incipient pandemic destined to circle the world, as some anxious observers might imagine. It’s a very grim and local misery.”
Ebola also isn’t unique in that regard. There are plenty of other infectious diseases that disproportionately plague low-income countries — killing far more people than the current outbreak — without sparking as much concern from the Americans who remain largely unaffected. For instance, about 1.5 million people die from diarrheal diseases annually in areas of the world that lack proper sanitation systems. Each year, more than six million children die before their fifth birthday from preventable diseases like pneumonia. In Africa, one child dies every minute from malaria, which can prevented with simple steps like using netting and insect repellent.
There are also several debilitating infectious diseases that afflict people throughout the courses of their lives. According to the World Health Organization, about a billion people worldwide — one sixth of the word’s entire population — are plagued by at least one so-called “neglected tropical disease” that can lead to crippling deformities and slow deaths. Those neglected diseases, which are heavily concentrated in poor countries in Africa and Latin America, typically aren’t high priorities for treatment. Since they don’t cause dramatic outbreaks that kill a lot of people at the same time, they don’t inspire the same kind of public interest that Ebola has. They also don’t have any impact on people who live in developed countries.