The current Ebola outbreak has killed thousands in West Africa and spread concern around the world.
The outbreak has raised a range of difficult questions, from how nations such as the United States should respond in Africa, to the most appropriate measures to take at home and whether to deploy unproven treatments.
Jason Schwartz, the Harold T. Shapiro Postdoctoral Research Associate in Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, addresses some of those issues in this Q&A. Schwartz, a member of Princeton's Class of 2003, studies ethical, historical and policy issues in medicine and public health.
A. Individuals are suffering. Communities are suffering. And there is uncertainty about what could happen next and who could be affected. That ought to create a spirit of global solidarity that provides strong support for a coordinated, focused global response — not just because it is in our own individual interests to dedicate resources and attention to West Africa but because it is consistent with our obligations to help our fellow global citizens regardless of what passport they carry or where they were born.
Q. There is now an increased urgency to make available potential Ebola treatments and vaccines. How do you do that safely amid an outbreak?
A. First, the understandable enthusiasm for these treatments ought not take away from the time-tested public health measures — such as carefully identifying and monitoring those who may have been exposed — that we know can do a great deal of good in containing the outbreak. We need to give just as much attention to scaling these measures up as we do to developing drugs or vaccines.
As for possible vaccines and treatments, there are two competing demands in responding to situations like this. The first is to get effective interventions to as many people as quickly as possible. That's priority Number 1. Priority 1A is to be sure that whatever we administer is as safe and as effective as possible — particularly on a large scale. Should we accelerate the use of an unproven product in the field on a humanitarian basis, hoping that it might do some good when other options seem to have failed? Or should we move in a way that appreciates that it's ethically problematic to use something that may not do any good and could do harm? These are complicated ethical questions that are still being sorted out.