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WHO: Giving Ebola victims unproven medicines is ethical

A doctor prepares a blood sample for Ebola analysis.
A doctor prepares a blood sample for Ebola analysis.
Getty Images

As the death toll from the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa surpassed 1,000, an expert panel met in Geneva to weigh the ethics of giving sufferers not-yet-approved Ebola treatments.

Their conclusion? This outbreak is so bad, it calls for exceptional measures, and so it's ethical to try drugs — even untested, experimental ones — in humans.

In the particular circumstances of this outbreak, and provided certain conditions are met, the panel reached consensus that it is ethical to offer unproven interventions with as yet unknown efficacy and adverse effects, as potential treatment or prevention.

This uneasy conversation was brought to the fore after two Americans received an experimental drug called ZMapp, and critics raised questions about why Africans didn't have the same right.

Though some have pointed out that people probably would have criticized the WHO for testing treatments in Africans, others have said that — because this disease is so deadly and sufferers are left with few alternatives — the potential benefits of using unapproved therapies probably outweigh the harms.

Still, the WHO had some cautions:

Ethical criteria must guide the provision of such interventions. These include transparency about all aspects of care, informed consent, freedom of choice, confidentiality, respect for the person, preservation of dignity and involvement of the community.

As well, they said data must be collected in order to guide future use and fully understand the safety and effectiveness of these drugs.

You can read the full announcement here.