September 24, 2022

Even for Ebola, unproven treatments are dicey, say bioethicists

Focus on other methods of stemming the spread of the disease.

In a target article in the latest edition of the American Journal of Bioethics, three bioethicists from the National Institutes of Health question the ethics of providing unproven interventions to Ebola victims and those at risk. 

Seema K. Shah, David Wendler and Marion Danis describe the detrimental effects of providing an unproven treatment – in particular (where the treatment fails to work) decreased trust in doctors and the medical profession generally.

The ethicists conclude that it may be more beneficial to focus on other methods of stemming the spread of the disease, such as building up healthcare infrastructure and providing healthcare workers to affected areas, rather than focusing energies on distributing what are potentially unbeneficial, or worse, harmful drugs.

Concerning patient trust in medical professionals, the authors observe: 

“The practice of medicine was once coloured by the public’s perception of physicians as peddling goods that were unlikely to cure them…it would be problematic and could undermine trust in the medical profession if physicians were to routinely offer unproven remedies without much reason to support their use…” 

They also consider the patent truth that there are often serious limitations placed on healthcare resources.

“In weighing their competing priorities, funders seeking to do the most good as efficiently as possible may reasonably choose to prioritize building public health and health care infrastructure…health systems on West Africa have been severely strained by the crisis, and both health systems and regulators…may have many priorities ahead of providing access to experimental therapies”.

“[Healthcare policy makers] should prioritize the provision of and further research into supportive care interventions that are effective against Ebola virus disease”, the authors conclude.   

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