The World Health Organization has given a green light for the use of unproven drugs to fight the deadly Ebola outbreak in four West African countries.
A panel of specialists agreed it is ethical to offer these treatments to try to curb the Ebola epidemic, which is the largest ever seen.
There have been a number of Ebola outbreaks in Eastern and Central Africa over the past 40 years. The WHO was able to stop those outbreaks by identifying and isolating all cases of the disease, tracing those who have come in contact with infected individuals and providing protective covering to health care workers.
But officials from the UN health agency acknowledge what has worked in the past is not working now. They say the outbreak in four West African countries -- Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria -- continues to spread and appears unstoppable.
That's why the panel of experts who convened Monday unanimously agreed it is ethical to offer unproven medicines as potential treatments, according to WHO Assistant Director-General Marie-Paule Kieny.
"The magnitude and the spread of the outbreak makes it that we do not have enough people to use and to rely only, if I may say, on what has traditionally worked if we want to stop the outbreak as quickly as possible," Kieny said. "So, this is why in this particular circumstances the ethicists have felt that it was ethical to propose these treatments and these vaccines, although they have not been registered yet."
West African health authorities report that more than 1,800 people have come down with Ebola, and more than 1,000 have died. There is no cure for this disease, which can kill up to 90 percent of its victims, and is spread through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person.
Researchers have found some potential treatments and vaccines that could help bring Ebola under control. But, while a handful of these drugs have shown positive results in monkeys, they have not been clinically tested in humans to see whether they are safe and effective.
The health of two American aid workers who got infected with Ebola in Liberia has improved since they were treated with an experimental drug known as Zmapp. This has raised hopes of other successful treatments by using this and other unproven drugs.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging the international community to respond to the shortage of doctors, nurses and equipment needed to fight the Ebola disease raging in West Africa.
At a news conference Tuesday, Ban said an organized global response is key to controlling the worst-ever outbreak of the virus. He announced he has appointed UN public health expert David Nabarro to coordinate the United Nations effort to fight Ebola.
The UN chief also called on the international community to avoid "panic and fear," saying the Ebola virus can be prevented.
While the WHO has given the go-ahead for the use of untested treatments and vaccines, Kieny says certain ethical criteria must guide their use. These include transparency of care, informed consent, freedom of choice, confidentiality and community involvement.
"The panel also emphasized that because we know so little about safety and efficacy in humans, whenever these treatments are provided for what we call compassionate use, which means it is defined as access to an unapproved drug outside of a clinical trial, then there is a moral obligation to collect and share all data generated," Kieny said.
The World Health Organization says it will push for the speedy start of clinical trials for Ebola drugs that look promising. It notes that trials for two vaccine candidates might begin by the end of September and information regarding their safety could be available by the end of the year.