GENEVA: As the world scrambles to stem the rapid spread of the killer Ebola virus, the World Health Organization hosted a meeting Monday to discuss the ethics of using experimental drugs.
The talks come as countries ravaged by the tropical disease in west Africa were gripped by panic, with drastic containment measures causing transport chaos, price hikes and food shortages, and stoking fears that people could die of hunger.
Liberia, where Ebola has already claimed over almost 370 lives, placed a third province, Lofa, under quarantine Monday. Similar measures are already in place in Bomba and Grand Cape Mount.
“No one will be allowed to go to Lofa, no one will come out of there,” President Ellen Johnson Sirfleaf said. “We want to protect areas that have not been yet affected.”
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 joined WHO-hosted discussions Monday to draft guidelines for using non-authorized medicines in emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak.
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 U.S. company Mapp Pharmaceuticals, is still in an extremely early phase of development and had only been tested previously on monkeys.
ZMapp is in short supply, but its use 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 ahead of Monday’s meeting.
While impoverished Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone account for the bulk of the cases, the latest outbreak has spread further afield. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has so far counted two deaths.
Numerous countries have imposed a raft of emergency measures, including flight bans or screening of passengers.
In the latest such move, the Ivory Coast announced Monday it was banning all flights from the three hardest-hit nations.
And it said in the past few days it had turned back around 100 Liberians trying to flee across the border into Ivory Coast, which had not reported any Ebola cases.
Togo, which also has yet to confirm any cases, said it had strengthened health screenings, but people in the capital Lome are not reassured.
“It’s a general psychosis. Everyone is afraid,” student Paul Magnissou told AFP.
Ebola causes fever and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding, and can be fatal in 25 to 90 percent of cases, according to the WHO.
The virus spreads by close contact with an infected person through bodily fluids such as sweat, blood and tissue.
The latest outbreak – which the WHO says is by far the worst since Ebola was discovered four decades ago – has killed around 55-60 percent of those infected.