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. So far, it has claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people.
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. Zmapp, one of those drugs, have been given to 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.
Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that produced the drug, says all the available supplies are now exhausted.
Also available - about 1,000 doses of an experimental vaccine, which may be used in West Africa. Neither of these treatments has been tested on human beings.
In a Skype interview with VOA, Dr. Robert Klitzman, one of the co-founders of the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University in New York, said using these drugs raises ethical issues. "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."
Dr. Klitzman said 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 is an infectious disease prevention expert at Jhpiego, an organization that trains health care workers in Liberia. He said even if there were a large supply of these treatments, an untested drug has to be monitored. “That’s an experimental medication still," he said and that "It cannot be used on a large scale for every patient."
Dr. Klitzman says he agrees. "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?"
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.