Do healthcare workers have a duty to treat Ebola patients?
This question has becoming more pressing in recent years, with the repeated outbreaks of the Ebola virus in Western and Central Africa and a high mortality rate among healthcare professionals. 105 cases of Ebola have now been confirmed in the latest outbreak, centering on the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On one view, bioethical principles such as beneficence and justice mandate that doctors provide treatment to patients when they are in dire need. A failure to leaves patients without treatment and risks creating inequalities in the delivery of care in society.
Yet in some cases doctors may be putting their lives at risk, specifically when dealing with highly contagious viruses such as Ebola in poorly resourced healthcare facilities.
Dr. Sheikh Umar Khan, a virologist from Sierra Leone, died in July 2014 after treating over 100 patients for Ebola in Kenema, a major city in the most affected part of the country. He was just one of hundreds of healthcare workers who succumbed to virus over the course of the three year West African Ebola epidemic, which was finally declared finished by the WHO in July 2016. During that epidemic, healthcare workers were between 21-32 times more likely to be infected with Ebola than the general public.
A new study published the Journal of Medical Ethics summarises the attitudes of 220 Guinean health care workers and 252 Guinean lay persons towards the duties of healthcare professionals to treat patients with Ebola. The study found that almost half of participants (47%) felt that the duty to care was not absolute, but rather contingent on factors such as working conditions and on one’s family responsibilities. A small minority of participants (23%) felt that HCPs did not have any duty to care at all.
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