MADRID (AP) — A Spanish missionary priest being treated for Ebola died Tuesday in a Madrid hospital amid a worldwide ethical debate over who should get experimental Ebola treatments.
After a meeting with medical experts, the World Health Organization declared it is ethical to use unproven Ebola drugs and vaccines in the current outbreak in West Africa provided the right conditions are met. Its statement, however, sidestepped the key questions of who should get the limited drugs and how that should be decided.
The U.N. health agency says 1,013 people have died so far in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and authorities have recorded 1,848 suspected or confirmed cases. The killer virus, spread by direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, diarrhea and vomit, was detected in Guinea in March and has since spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and possibly Nigeria.
Two Americans and reportedly a Spanish priest have gotten an experimental Ebola treatment never tested in humans and two more Ebola treatments were said to be en route to treat two doctors in Liberia. The vast majority of Ebola victims are Africans, and some in Africa have protested that their citizens are not getting access to the novel drugs.
"We can't afford to be passive while many more die," said Aisha Dab, a Senegalese-Gambian journalist who was tweeting using the hashtag "GiveUsTheSerum." ''That's why we raise our voice for the world to hear us."
The Spanish missionary priest, 75-year-old Miguel Parajes, died in Madrid's Carlos III Hospital, the hospital and his order said. The hospital would not confirm that he had been treated with the drug, but his order and Spain's Health Ministry said earlier that he would be. His body will be cremated Wednesday to avoid any further public health risks, the hospital said.
Parajes had worked for the San Juan de Dios hospital order, a Spain-based Catholic humanitarian group, and had been helping to treat people with Ebola in Liberia when he became ill and was evacuated.
WHO decided it is ethical to use experimental treatments and vaccines in an ongoing outbreak even though there's no evidence yet that these experimental drugs can actually help fight Ebola — and it is possible they could be harmful. Still, this outbreak has had about a 50 percent death rate, according to the U.N., adding urgency to the search for a treatment.
"In the particular circumstances of this outbreak and provided certain conditions are met, the panel reached consensus that it is ethical to offer unproven interventions with as yet unknown efficacy and adverse effects, as potential treatment or prevention," the agency said.
The panel said "more detailed analysis and discussion" are needed to decide how to achieve fair distribution in communities and among countries, since there is an extremely limited supply of the experimental drugs and vaccines.
WHO also said the world had "a moral duty" to properly collect evidence about the untested treatment's safety and effectiveness in a proper scientific trial.
West African nations are struggling to control both the deadly outbreak and the fear it has engendered. Most airlines flying in and out of the Liberian capital of Monrovia have suspended flights amid the unprecedented health crisis.
The Ivory Coast, which shares borders with Liberia and Guinea, banned direct flights from those countries and said it would increase health inspections at its borders.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf suspended all travel by executive branch officials for one month on Tuesday. She also ordered those already abroad to return home within a week "or be considered as abandoning their jobs," according to a statement.
A U.K.-based public relations firm representing Liberia said the experimental Ebola treatment would be arriving within the next 48 hours to treat the two Liberian physicians.
"The two doctors gave their consent, themselves being medical professionals, for the drug to be administered," the statement said. "The drugmaker has agreed to supply a sufficient amount of this drug only for these two patients."