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Ethical Issues Surround Response To Africa's Ebola Outbreak

European Commission DG ECHO
Flickr Creative Commons
Aid workers prepare to respond to Ebola patients in the West African nation of Guinea

Friday the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be an international public health emergency that requires an extraordinary response to stop its spread.

The WHO made similar announcements in May regarding polio, and in 2009 after the outbreak of swine flu.

Thursday night, the U.S. State Department ordered all eligible family members of U.S. personnel to leave the American Embassy in Liberia's capital city because of the outbreak.

The deadly virus has been reported in Liberia and three other countries in West Africa. Nearly 1,000 people have died since the outbreak appeared in March.

The U.S. has brought back aid workers infected with the virus to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to treat them. University of Oklahoma political scientist and occasional World Views contributor Keith Gaddie says two sets of ethical issues are at play - one, the availability of medical treatment, and who receives it.

"We always treat test subjects before we go to the general population," Gaddie says. "But the bigger ethical issue is why did we wait for aid workers to get infected when we had many infected individuals, at least one of whom might have volunteered to come back and receive treatment in the U.S."

Gaddie says the other ethical dilemma is the public health issue of local customs in West Africa.

"The tradition of holding a dead person or an ill person in a room, touching them, nursing them through the family actually promotes the spread of the disease," Gaddie says. "That's part of the problem with this outbreak."

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