Unproven Treatments Deemed Ethical in Ebola Outbreak

ZMapp and other experimental Ebola treatments deemed ethical by WHO panel

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) As the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues, health workers and their governments are looking for ways to save lives and prevent the spread of the disease. One experimental serum to treat Ebola has gained a lot of attention but also raised some ethical questions.

The experimental treatment is called ZMapp. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Inc., is developing it.

Until recently, ZMapp had never been used in humans — which raises one of the main problems with using experimental medications: whether they're safe for humans or if they'll even work is unclear. However, the current outbreak has led to calls to use experimental medications.

Two American missionaries were the first to receive ZMapp. Then, a Spanish priest received the treatment.

Now, a group of ethicists gathered by the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that it is ethical to use unproven treatments like ZMapp in the current Ebola outbreak.

"Learn the facts about Ebola from a qualified medical professional."

The Ebola virus causes a disease called Ebola hemorrhagic fever (also known as Ebola virus disease). This disease is severe and often fatal.

"The large number of people affected by the 2014 West Africa outbreak, and the high case-fatality rate, have prompted calls to use investigational medical interventions to try to save the lives of patients and to curb the epidemic," WHO officials said in a press statement.

The WHO panel's decision was partially based on the specific circumstances of this outbreak. As Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of the WHO, told CNN, the usual methods used to stop the spread of the virus (protective gear, tracing contacts of those infected, etc.) aren't working fast enough. Also, the countries affected by the outbreak, which include Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, lack the health care resources necessary to fight the outbreak.

The WHO panel of ethicists agreed that it is ethical to use experimental treatments, provided that some conditions are met. These conditions include the following:

  • transparency of all aspects of care
  • informed consent (the patient is provided with all the relevant information and agrees to treatment)
  • freedom of choice
  • confidentiality
  • respect for the person
  • preservation of dignity
  • involvement in the community

The panel also recommended ways that health care providers can keep track of and share data to get a better understanding of the safety and effectiveness of any experimental medications used.

The current Ebola outbreak is the deadliest in history. WHO estimates that the virus has infected more than 1,800 people and killed more than 1,000.

Review Date: 
August 12, 2014
Last Updated:
October 8, 2014