Geneva: As the world scrambles to stem the rapid spread of the killer Ebola virus, the World Health Organization is hosting a meeting today to discuss the ethics of using experimental drugs.
The talks come as countries ravaged by the tropical disease in west Africa are gripped by panic, with drastic measures brought in to contain the epidemic causing transport chaos, price hikes and food shortages, stoking fears people could die of hunger.
There is currently no available cure or vaccine for Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses known to man, and with the death toll fast approaching 1,000, the WHO has declared the latest outbreak a global public health emergency. But the use of experimental drugs has opened up an intense ethical debate, and medical experts from around the world are set today to join WHO-hosted discussions to draft guidelines for using non-authorised medicines in emergencies such as Ebola.
Two Americans and a Spanish priest infected with the virus while working with the sick in Africa are being treated with an untested drug called ZMapp, which has reportedly shown promising results. But the drug, made by private US company Mapp Pharmaceuticals, is still in an extremely early phase of development and had only been tested previously on monkeys.
It is also in extremely short supply, and the use of the medication on Western aid workers has sparked controversy and demands that it be made available in Africa, where Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are the hardest hit nations. "Is it ethical to use unregistered medicines to treat people, and if so, what criteria should they meet, and what conditions, and who should be treated?" said WHO assistant director-general Marie-Paule Kieny, who will host today's meeting.