Medical Technology, Scarcity & Ethics

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

How did the lack of proper medical technology contribute to the spread of a deadly virus in Africa and all over the world? How does this tie in with bioethics? Find out, in this lesson!

Medical Technology, Scarcity, and Ethics

If you live in the Western world, you live in a pretty privileged place when it comes to medical technology. And I don't just mean physical equipment like surgical instruments or anesthesia machines. Medical technology encompasses everything from labs and their diagnostic machines to the technology used to train doctors and scientists to the infrastructure and networks that support them.

Yet in many parts of the world, including parts of Africa, there is a clear-cut scarcity of medical technology in terms of quantity, quality, or both. This poses certain ethical problems, namely bioethical ones. Bioethics is the field of ethics applied to the biological sciences, including the medical field.

Let's follow this thought with a particular example in this lesson.

Ebola Virus

In early 2014, Ebola infections began to occur in the West African country of Guinea. Ebola is a very sudden, oftentimes fatal disease that's caused by a virus. It causes a fever, muscle pain, vomiting, bleeding, headache, and in many cases death. The Ebola virus spreads in part through the direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola.

After infections began to occur in Guinea, Ebola then quickly spread in the region, and became a potential threat to people all over the world within a matter of months. Why did this occur? One reason that it happened has to do with the scarcity of appropriate medical technology.

Scarcity of Medical Technology

Guinea is one of the poorest nations on earth. One reason for its poverty has been a history of devastating conflict and war. Such conflicts have left its health infrastructures seriously damaged or completely destroyed. This implies a lack of proper medical technology, as well as a lack of properly trained personnel. This also means that transmitting samples of biological tissues and fluids for diagnosis and detection of an emerging disease like Ebola is difficult, to say the least. Transporting patients for testing and treatment is also very difficult. And engaging in public health campaigns to educate and warn people about Ebola and how to avoid it is also fraught with problems.

This is the perfect scenario for an outbreak of any disease. Under such circumstances, devoid of proper medical technology, a disease can start, go undetected and untreated, and spread very easily.

Bioethical Considerations

One of the ethical issues brought up about Ebola was the treatment of the disease. There is no specific approved treatment for Ebola. Patients are instead treated with supportive care, like rehydration therapy.

However, the power of U.S. medical technology has given rise to experimental drugs that might help in treating Ebola directly. These have not been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, except in emergency cases when no other approved alternative is available, such as the case posed by Ebola. However, during the Ebola outbreak, the extremely limited supply of these drugs, untested on humans, was first given to two Americans, but not to any Africans. This raised a heated debate about the scarcity of medical technology, in this case the development and availability of drugs to fight Ebola, and access to such drugs in places like Africa.

What do you think? Should the United States have saved American lives first with its limited supply of drugs developed in the U.S.? If no, then do you think it's ethically correct to send experimental drugs untested on humans, ones with potentially serious side effects, to foreign nations desperate for anything?

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