As Ebola toll grows, WHO calls for experimental drug use, and “lessons of AIDS” play out

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Last week as the toll from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa approached 1,000 lives across the region, the new International Red Cross and Red Crescent leader gave an interview to Agence France Press urging that responders apply the lessons the world has learned from three decades of fighting HIV. He was largely referring to, as he explained, “the simple fact that communities are part of the solution and they shouldn’t be seen as a problem.”

But by then, the opportunity to refer to another lesson was emerging, as two Americans infected with the disease appeared to respond well to the experimental medicine they were receiving, raising questions, once again, of how and when effective treatments become equitably available. While noting ethical and practical concerns of large scale roll out of a drug untested on humans for safety or efficacy, global health advocates, including AIDS-free World co-founder and co-director Stephen Lewis, also noted that the pressing need for treatment called for immediate and ongoing attention.

The World Health Organization’s release today of an international ethics panel’s recommendation that “in the particular circumstances of this outbreak, and provided certain conditions are met,” unproven medicines be made available to patients, was a step in that direction. The conditions include collection and sharing of data that will yield information on safety and efficacy, as well as informed consent, confidentiality and freedom of choice. While the recommendation does not specify a drug, World Health Organization Assistant Director General Dr. Marie Paule Kieny notes that “several treatments have been shown to be very effective in non-human primates,” and that presumably includes ZMapp, the tobacco-derivative drug administered to the two Americans, who continue to recover.

Médecins Sans Frontières, which launched and provided the bulk of the response to the outbreak, hailed the World Health Organization’s decision, while cautioning that how quickly treatment would be produced and made accessible remains unclear, and that the medicine alone won’t end the outbreak.

In the meantime, as the Global Post notes, matters of life and death can be of dishearteningly little interest to those fortunate enough to remain unaffected, without the aid of panic-inducing exaggeration. The news organization addresses both, with the aid and antidote of adorable animals, in this helpful presentation of information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Finally, as pastors abroad as well as an American talk show host,exploit fear and bigotry, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa offers other lessons, already learned from HIV.

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