The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. There are ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Without specific drugs or a vaccine for Ebola, the only thing doctors can do for those suffering from this disease is treat their symptoms and hope their bodies can fight the virus.
Ebola is killing at least half of those who get it.
Experimental drugs have been tried on six people: three Westerners and now, three African doctors.
One of the Westerners, a Catholic priest who was working in Liberia, has died. Reports say the other five are improving. It's still not known if the drug has helped.
The drug they received is Zmapp. The company says all the available supplies are already exhausted.
There are also about 1,000 doses of an experimental vaccine available, which may be used in West Africa. Neither of these treatments has been tested on human beings.
The World Health Organization decided that the desperate situation justifies the use of experimental drugs.
Dr. Robert Klitzman from Columbia University addressed some of the ethical issues in a Skype interview.
"Does it work? What should we tell people? What if it makes people worse? We want to make sure people understand that there are risks involved. If we have a limited supply, we need to decide who should get the vaccine or medication and who should not," said Klitzman.
Klitzman says in some sub-Saharan African languages, there's a word for "cure," but nothing that translates the word "experimental." He says anyone who receives an experimental drug has to be told it might not cure them, and if it might make the situation worse.
Dr. Chandrakant Ruparelia an infectious disease expert at Jhpiego, an organization that trains health care workers in Liberia. He says even if there were a large supply of these treatments, an untested drug has to be monitored.
“That’s an experimental medication still. It cannot be used on a large scale for every patient," said Ruparelia.
"We need to give it in a controlled way where we can see who got it, what happened, does it work, does it make them worse?," he said.
Other vaccines and treatments are being developed, but are not likely to be used to treat Ebola patients, even in an experimental form, at least not for this unprecedented outbreak.