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Trends & Times

The Ethical Issues Surrounding The Ebola Epidemic, And How They Are Evolving

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"We begin this week with a ramp-up of the American response to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. Calling it a threat to global security, President Obama has ordered 3,000 troops to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The American effort will include spending up to a billion dollars to construct and staff 17 health care facilities, and training 500 health care workers per week. We've talked a lot on this program about the medical side of this story. This week, we asked our regular contributor Dr. Eric Meslin to weigh in on some of the ethical questions that are swirling around the Ebola crisis.

Interview highlights

Dr. Meslin: This issue, if it wasn't a real-life tragedy, would be a perfect case study for a bioethics textbook because it has all the features of issues ranging from a provision of health care to people who are desperately ill and vulnerable to how do you design research and vaccines in an epidemic, all the way to whether this has become a military or humanitarian operation. So, in a nutshell, the ethics and policy community is wrestling with all of these simultaneously. 

Lewis: So now there's a big effort launched including troops on the ground. Are there any ethical considerations as to this kind of more massive effort to stop this Ebola outbreak?

Dr. Meslin: One of the things that's interesting about this response is that when it becomes militarized two things happens. One is it becomes very well organized because whether you support the military, don't support the military, no one disputes the fact that they are well organized. People can have a chain of command and know what's supposed to happen. It works very well in crisis situations. But the second thing that happens is that it becomes less diplomatic and humanitarian activity. I think this is the challenge ethically. The second thing that happens is that it  It works very well in crisis situations. We saw for example that not only did the Obama administration decide to make available many millions of dollars, not only to purchase equipment and medicine, but to train and care for people, but so too did the Gates Foundation. The Gates foundation is not a military organization. They are a philanthropy who decided to make a charitable donation to assist in this way as well.