Was it ethical for the American missionaries to be treated for Ebola ahead of Liberians? Dr. Celia B. Fisher weighs in

Players of the ”L’Etoile de Guinee” football team poses with a sign reading ”Stop to the ebola epidemic” prior to a football tournament gathering youth from Guinea near the Koumassi sports center in Abidjan on August 10, 2014. West Africa was counting the cost of measures to contain the deadly Ebola epidemic on August 10, as unprecedented restrictions caused snarled transport, food shortages and soaring prices.  Photo credit: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

As the world comes to terms with the recent Ebola outbreak, several ethical questions have arisen, many of which relate to the distributions of Ebola vaccines, and who should be given priority.

Was it ethical for the two American missionaries to receive treatment for Ebola ahead of the local Liberian population?

Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Director Dr. Celia B. Fisher weighed in on this topic in an article on Vox.com by Brandon Ambrosino

The article specifically aimed to address whether it went against the two Christian missionaries’ mission to accept the Ebola vaccine ahead of the population they were there to serve.

“Although missionaries have a higher calling, like other helping professionals, they have a moral responsibility to consider what actions will best promote the good,” Fisher explained. “The fact that the missionary with Ebola is fighting an epidemic that is affecting many people, changes the moral question from simply whether or not he has a moral obligation to prioritize one other person’s health over his own, but which choice has the greater possibility of  preventing the spread of the disease across many people.”

According to Fisher, in the current crises, since there is not enough of the drug to have it available to other community members, the most life-saving steps are those that guide the community in public health safety procedures.

In this particular circumstance, Fisher stated, the missionaries’ training and trust within the community may be invaluable to motivating the community to adopt health measures that will stem the disease — a skill the other Ebola patient may not possess.  Another issue unique to the current Ebola crises that must be taken into consideration, is that the effectiveness and side effects of the medication are unknown, she noted.

“Thus there are no guarantees and some risks that both the missionary and the other patient would be taking,” Fisher explained. “In the context of previous vaccine trials in which giving the drug to individuals living in low-resource countries was criticized as using them as guinea pigs, another aspect of the moral choice facing the missionary is whether taking the medication himself, irrespective of consequences, may be the best way to ensure that western countries will not be blocked from continuing to try to find a cure.”

Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D. is the Marie Ward Doty University Chair, Professor of Psychology, and Director of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education and the Fordham HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute. She has served on the National Academies’ Revisions to the Common Rule for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, the DHHS Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP), chaired the Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board and received the 2010 Health Improvement Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award  for Excellence in Human Research Protection.


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