[September 20, 2014] The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is “exponentially increasing” and projections predict hundreds of thousands by the end of the year. The viral disease has no known cure, is highly contagious, and has a fatality rate over 50 percent. There is no current vaccine to prevent the disease. Transmission is by body fluids and, unfortunately, that is probably the best news because this means it can be controlled to an extent. And this is where ethics and leadership comes into play.
Animals with the disease or suspected of having it, are simply killed and the carcasses burned. Humans are another matter. Some methods to quarantine those with the disease have succeeded. This means restricting people to their homes, prohibiting travel, and reducing behavior that would cause body fluid contact. The problem is that many leaders in West Africa don’t have the information to make informed choices or facilities, equipment, medical procedures, or leadership skills to correct the problem. Leaders making decisions could unknowingly cause further migration of the virus in other populated areas. Furthermore, while international aid is flowing into Africa, people are coming and going with the risk of carrying the disease elsewhere into Europe and the Americas.
The U.S. President has already committed 3,000 troops, medical supplies, and engineers to build facilities in parts of West Africa. The President’s decision to send troops however is being highly criticized due to the risks to troops. Other organizations have been working to contain the disease and have a wealth of medical knowledge that can be used to help. Doctors Without Borders has been at the tip of the spear on this problem and have been working with international bodies to help.
The most difficult life or death choices will have to be made by African leaders. Medical ethics have been evolving for a long time and are mature as ethics go. How we contain a disease today differs in how it was done more than 100 years ago. Leaders will have to make very difficult decisions and may be held accountable for acts that cause additional deaths.
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