Bioethics Blogs

A Primer on Ebola: Ethics, Public Health, and Panic

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Ebola is in the news a lot with the diagnosis of the first case on U.S. soil (excluding the 4 cases of health workers who were repatriated from West Africa after falling ill with the disease). Lots of information is flying around the internet and the news media. The ethics of outbreaks is not a new topic and has been written about extensively in this blog as well as elsewhere. Experts in public health ethics have addressed this issue thoroughly.

Below are some thinking points about Ebola to help put the situation into perspective and to provide some points for reflection.

  1. It’s hard to get. Ebola is a virus transmitted through bodily fluids. You have to come into contact with the secretions or blood of an infected person and it enters your body through a cut or a mucous membrane. Ebola cannot be transmitted causally or through the air like influenza.
  2. Ebola can only be transmitted when a patient has symptoms.
  3. The infection rate in West Africa is high because (a) a shortage of trained health professions and medical supplies means caregivers lack adequate personal protection and can then act as disease vectors, (b) poorly funded public health systems means its hard to respond to the disease, (c) the funerary rites in many of these places include touching the deceased, washing the body, and even kissing the body.
  4. Ebola has been in the United States before. In 1989, 1990 and 1996 Ebola was found in monkeys imported into quarantine facilities. In the 1990 case, four humans were found to have antibodies but were not sick.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.