Ebola and the cultural understanding of disease

Last night the student group that works with the Center for Ethics at Taylor University sponsored a discussion of the ethical issues related to the current Ebola outbreak in western Africa. They discussed issues including when it can be appropriate to use an experimental treatment that has not been tested for safety in humans, how to decide who should be given an experimental treatment that is in very limited supply, and how to balance personal liberty with the need for quarantines and other restrictions of movement to limit spread of the disease.

Two African students took part in the discussion. One of them said that there are some Africans who are very suspicious of western influence in Africa and think that things like the Ebola outbreak are not naturally occurring diseases, but are some kind of experiment that is being performed on Africans by outsiders. That makes them very suspicious of receiving help from non-Africans. When we were discussing the ethical issues involved in the treatment of Dr. Kent Brantley and fellow missionary Nancy Writebol with an experimental treatment for Ebola that had never been tested in humans and their subsequent transfer to the US to complete the treatment and receive care beyond what could be provided in Liberia, he said that the treatment of these two Americans and their being flown back to the US confirmed in the minds of some people that this was part of an experiment being done on Africans by outsiders. His comments reminded me how significant cultural beliefs can be in the understanding of disease and how much they can impact efforts to care for people across cultures.

The public health resources of Liberia and similar countries are overwhelmed by a crisis like the current Ebola outbreak. They desperately need help from outside their country, but cultural beliefs and historical problems can make it difficult for that help to be effective. We talked some about how the local churches in Liberia can play a role in caring for the people of their own nation in a time of crisis such as this and helping to make the efforts of those trying to help be more effective. I had previously been praying primarily for the workers of Samaritan’s Purse and similar organizations that are try to help in West Africa. Our discussion made me realize that I need to be praying not only for those efforts, but also for the local churches who can minister to their neighbors in ways that those form the outside may not be able to.

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