The Ethics of Using Placebo Controls in Ebola Clinical Trials

[Blogger's Note: I am very pleased to share this post by my colleague at Seton Hall Law, Carl Coleman. This post was cross-posted at Health Reform Watch.]

By Carl H. Coleman

With well over 5,000 global deaths from Ebola already reported, drug developers are working fast to begin human clinical trials of promising experimental treatments.  Earlier this month, US government officials announced plans to launch a study of multiple Ebola interventions at the NIH Clinical Center, Emory University, and the University of Nebraska.  Shortly thereafter, the international relief organization Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) announced that it would soon begin testing of three experimental interventions at its treatment centers in West Africa, in collaboration with a coalition of European partners and the World Health Organization.

As predicted in an earlier blog post, a major area of contention in these trials involves the ethical acceptability of using placebo controls.  Plans for the US study are to give some participants the experimental drugs and others placebos, with everyone receiving the best supportive care available, such as fluid replacement and medications to fight off other infections.  In the MSF trials, by contrast, none of the participants will be given placebos; instead, everyone will receive one of three different experimental interventions.

From a methodological perspective, it is easy to see why the designers of the US study have chosen to use placebos.  Placebo-controlled trials are widely considered the “gold standard” of clinical research.  Using placebos makes it possible to identify the extent to which observed outcomes in participants are the result of the experimental intervention, as opposed to factors such as access to better health care facilities, receipt of supportive care, or psychological expectations (the so-called “placebo effect”).  Continue reading

Is Pregnancy a “Disability” in the Ebola Epidemic?

By Kelsey Berry

Much of the recent Ebola coverage has brought to the forefront principles of disaster triage and served as a reminder of the inescapability of rationing health care resources. A piece in The New Yorker recently highlighted the plight of pregnant women and their apparent exclusion from standard Ebola wards in Sierra Leone. Professor and Ethicist Nir Eyal at Harvard Medical School was quoted discussing the role of disaster triage guidelines in allocating resources for Ebola in the case of pregnant women.

Pregnant women have long been identified as more vulnerable to viral infections than other healthy adults, due perhaps to immune system changes occurring naturally during pregnancy. This may have accounted for the increased mortality rate among pregnant women during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic in the US (17% in pregnant women vs. 0.02% in the general population), and it may impact Ebola survival rates as well. A smaller 1995 Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Zaire had a case fatality rate among pregnant women of 93%, and anecdotal accounts from the current epidemic in Sierra Leone state a 100% case fatality rate. Recent figures from West Africa put the case fatality rate in the general population at 70%. These statistics, among other concerns for resource utilization, lead to an ethical dilemma: whether and how to allocate scarce resources to pregnant women in the present ebola epidemic in West Africa.

If the mortality rates from Kikwit are accurate, Dr. Eyal notes that it means that, “what’s needed to justify giving regular priority to a pregnant woman is a willingness to allow six other people to perish to save her.” But, he notes, the permissibility of excluding pregnant women is sensitive to these rates; if they are wrong, than so too may be triaging pregnant women last.  Continue reading

Will the Real Evidence-Based Ebola Policy Please Stand Up? Seven Takeaways From Maine DHHS v. Hickox

By Michelle Meyer

Ebola pic

The case I mentioned in my last post, Maine Department of Health and Human Services v. Kaci Hickox is no more. Hickox and public health officials agreed to stipulate to a final court order imposing on Hickox the terms that the court had imposed on her in an earlier, temporary order. Until Nov. 10, when the 21-day incubation period for Ebola ends, Hickox will submit to “direct active monitoring” and coordinate her travel with Maine public health authorities to ensure that such monitoring occurs uninterrupted. She has since said that she will not venture into town or other public places, although she is free to do so.

In a new post at The Faculty Lounge,* I offer a detailed account of the case, which suggests the following lessons:

  1. As Hickox herself described it, the result of her case is a “compromise,” reflecting neither what Hickox nor what Maine initially wanted.
  2. That compromise was achieved by the parties availing themselves of the legal process, not through Hickox’s civil disobedience.
  3. The compromise is not easily described, as it has been, as a victory of science-based federal policy over fear-based state demagoguery. By the time the parties got to court, and perhaps even before then, what Maine requested was consistent with U.S. CDC Guidance, albeit a strict application of it. What Hickox had initially offered to do, by contrast, fell below even the most relaxed application of those guidelines, although by the time the parties reached court, she had agreed to comply with that minimum.
  4. The compromise applies only to Hickox, and was based on a stipulation by the parties to agree to the terms that the court had temporarily imposed after reviewing a limited evidentiary record. Additional evidence and legal arguments that the state might have raised in the now-cancelled two-day hearing could have resulted in a different outcome.
  5. A substantially different outcome, however, would have been unlikely under Maine’s public health statute. Indeed, it is not clear that Maine’s public health statute allows public health authorities to compel asymptomatic people at-risk of developing Ebola to do anything, including complying with minimum CDC recommendations.
  6. “Quarantine” is a charged, but ambiguous, term. It allows us to talk past one another, to shorthand and needlessly politicize a much-needed debate about appropriate policy, and to miss the fact that the CDC Guidance in some cases recommends what could be fairly described as a “quarantine” for people like Hickox and requires it for asymptomatic people with stronger exposure to Ebola (but who are still probably less likely to get sick than not).
  7. It’s not clear who has bragging rights to Ebola policy “grounded in science,” or what that policy looks like.

* The piece is quite long, and I cannot bear the fight with the WordPress formatting demons that it would require to cross-post it here.

From Harvard Effective Altruism: Upcoming (Nov. 17): Steven Pinker on “The Past, Present, and Future of Violence”

Harvard College Effective Altruism presents:

The Past, Present, and Future of Violence
with Steven Pinker

Monday, November 17th, 7 PM
Science Center D
RSVP here.

Pinker

Contact Harvard College Effective Altruism at harvardea@gmail.com.

The Constitutional Implications of Ebola: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights In Times of Health Crises

Join us for an important public forum:

Constitutional Implications of Ebola:
Civil Liberties & Civil Rights In Times of Health Crises

This public forum addresses the constitutional and public health implications of Ebola response in the United States.  According to state and federal laws, patient information is deemed private and is to be held in strict confidentiality.  However, in the wake of Ebola, well-established protocols to guard patient privacy have been neglected or suspended without public debate.  At this forum, a panel of experts raise questions not only about how to contain the disease, but also to what extent Americans value their healthcare privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights.  To what extent are Americans’ Ebola fears influenced by the origins of the disease?  What liberties are Americans willing to sacrifice to calm their fears?  How to balance the concern for public welfare with legal and ethical privacy principles?

Speakers: Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.;  Michele Goodwin, Chancellor’s Chair, UC Irvine School of Law;  Professor Andrew Noymer, UC Irvine School of Public Health; and Dr. George Woods, American Psychiatric Association.

This Forum intervenes in the current national and international discourse on Ebola by probing law’s role in addressing public health crises.  This forum is free and open to the public.

WHEN: Wednesday, November 19, 2014, 3.30pm-5.30pm

WHERE: University of California Irvine, School of Law; ROOM EDU 1111, 401 E Peltason Dr, Irvine, CA 92612

The Globalization of Infectious Diseases

The recent arrival of Ebola in the United States has captured the attention of both the public and the media for many reasons.  One key reason is that Ebola is making many people realize for the first time that serious diseases which were formerly confined largely to developing countries have the potential to spread more widely across the globe.  But Ebola is not the first infectious disease to spread in this way, and it’s valuable for Americans to realize that many diseases which are often viewed as existing only in developing countries are already present in the developed world, due to a complex set of factors including migration and climate change.

Specifically, serious diseases transmitted by insects like chikungunya, dengue fever, and Chagas disease are already here in the United States.  I blogged here in August about DARPA’s prize to predict the spread of chikungunya, and the CDC’s estimates suggest that the disease may be finding a foothold in this country, with 11 locally-transmitted cases in addition to the more than 1500 travel-associated cases confirmed so far in 2014.  Compared to an average of just 28 cases per year since 2006, the spread is concerning.  Scientists also contend that dengue fever, a disease with similarly debilitating symptoms, is now endemic to Florida.

The case of Chagas is even more dramatic.  Categorized by the CDC as a “neglected parasitic infection,” it is estimated that 300,000 infected people live in the United States.  That’s ten times as many people as are diagnosed with ALS, a disease which has made much more of a mark on the public consciousness.  Chagas’ impact (both human and economic) on the United States’ health system is and will continue to be extremely costly, with one study estimating the economic cost to the United States at roughly $900 million annually.  Some of these costs are indirect — for instance, donated blood must now be screened for the presence of the parasite, to prevent its transmission.  But most are direct.  Over the long term, Chagas can cause severe, even fatal damage to the heart and gastrointestinal tract.  Continue reading

Above the (Public Health) Law: Healthcare Worker Deception and Disobedience in a Time of Distrust

[Author's Note: Addendum and updates (latest: 4  pm, 10/31) added below.]

A physician shall… be honest in all professional interactions, and strive to report physicians… engaging in fraud or deception, to appropriate entities.
AMA Principles of Medical Ethics

This is a troubling series of news reports about deception and defiance on the part of some healthcare workers (HCWs) in response to what they believe to be unscientific, unfair, and/or unconstitutional public health measures (to be clear, the text is not mine (until after the jump); it’s cut and pasted, in relevant part, from the linked sources):

(1) Ebola Aide Doc: I’m Not Telling My Team To Tell The Truth

Gavin Macgregor-Skinner, an epidemiologist and Global Projects Manager for the Elizabeth R. Griffin Foundation, who has led teams of doctors to treat Ebola in West Africa, reported that he “can’t tell them [his doctors] to tell the truth [to U.S. officials]” on Monday’s “CNN Newsroom.”

“At the moment these people are so valuable . . . I have to ensure they come back here, they get the rest needed. I can’t tell them to tell the truth at the moment because we’re seeing so much irrational behavior,” he stated. “I’ve come back numerous times between the U.S. and West Africa. If I come back now and say ‘I’ve been in contact with Ebola patients,’ I’m going to be locked in my house for 21 days,” Macgregor-Skinner said as his reason for not being truthful with officials, he added, “when I’m back here in the US, I am visiting US hospitals everyday helping them get prepared for Ebola. You take me out for three weeks, who’s going to replace me and help now US hospitals get ready? Those gaps can’t be filled.

He argued that teams of doctors and nurses could be trusted with the responsibility of monitoring themselves, stating, “When I bring my team back we are talking each day on video conferencing, FaceTime, Skype, text messaging, supporting each other. As soon as I feel sick I’m going to stay at home and call for help, but I’m not going to go to a Redskins game here in Washington D.C. That’s irresponsible, but I need to get back to these hospitals and help them be prepared.

UPDATE: Here is the CNN video of his remarks.

(2) Ebola Doctor ‘Lied’ About NYC Travels

The city’s first Ebola patient initially lied to authorities about his travels around the city following his return from treating disease victims in Africa, law-enforcement sources said. Dr. Craig Spencer at first told officials that he isolated himself in his Harlem apartment — and didn’t admit he rode the subways, dined out and went bowling until cops looked at his MetroCard the sources said. “He told the authorities that he self-quarantined. Detectives then reviewed his credit-card statement and MetroCard and found that he went over here, over there, up and down and all around,” a source said. Spencer finally ’fessed up when a cop “got on the phone and had to relay questions to him through the Health Department,” a source said. Officials then retraced Spencer’s steps, which included dining at The Meatball Shop in Greenwich Village and bowling at The Gutter in Brooklyn.

Update 11PM, 10/30: A spokesperson for the NYC healh department has now disputed the above story, which cites anonymous police officer sources, in a statement provided to CNBC. The spokesperson said: “Dr. Spencer cooperated fully with the Health Department to establish a timeline of his movements in the days following his return to New York from Guinea, providing his MetroCard, credit cards and cellphone.” . . . When CNBC asked again if Spencer had at first lied to authorities or otherwise mislead them about his movements in the city, Lewin replied: “Please refer to the statement I just sent. As this states, Dr. Spencer cooperated fully with the Health Department.”

(3) Ebola nurse in Maine rejects home quarantine rules [the WaPo headline better captures the gist: After fight with Chris Christie, nurse Kaci Hickox will defy Ebola quarantine in Maine]

Kaci Hickox, the Ebola nurse who was forcibly held in an isolation tent in New Jersey for three days, says she will not obey instructions to remain at home in Maine for 21 days. “I don’t plan on sticking to the guidelines,” Hickox tells TODAY’s Matt Lauer. “I am not going to sit around and be bullied by politicians and forced to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public.”

Maine health officials have said they expect her to agree to be quarantined at her home for a 21-day period. The Bangor Daily News reports. But Hickox, who agreed to stay home for two days, tells TODAY she will pursue legal action if Maine forces her into continued isolation. “If the restrictions placed on me by the state of Maine are not lifted by Thursday morning, I will go to court to fight for my freedom,” she says.

Some thoughts on these reports, after the jump.  Continue reading

Ebola: A Problem of Poverty Rather than Health

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs and PrawfsBlawg.]

Undoubtedly, the death toll in West Africa would be much lower if Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had better health care systems or if an Ebola vaccine had been developed already. But as Fran Quigley has observed, Ebola is much more a problem of poverty than of health. Ebola has caused so much devastation because it emerged in countries ravaged by civil wars that disrupted economies and ecosystems.

Ultimately, this Ebola epidemic will be contained, and a vaccination will be developed to limit future outbreaks. But there are other lethal viruses in Africa, and more will emerge in the coming years. If we want to protect ourselves against the threat of deadly disease, we need to ensure that the international community builds functioning economies in the countries that lack them.

Our humanitarian impulses in the past have not been strong enough to provide for the needs of the impoverished across the globe. Perhaps now that our self-interest is at stake, we will do more to meet the challenge.

Ebola and Privacy

By Michele Goodwin

As the nation braces for possibly more Ebola cases, civil liberties should be considered, including patient privacy.  As news media feature headline-grabbing stories about quarantines,  let’s think about the laws governing privacy in healthcare. Despite federal laws enacted to protect patient privacy, the Ebola scare brings the vulnerability of individuals and the regulations intended to help them into sharp relief.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to protect patient privacy.  Specifically, HIPAA’s Privacy Rule requires that healthcare providers and their business associates restrict access to patients’ health care information.  For many years, the law has been regarded as the strongest federal statement regarding patient privacy. But it may be tested in the wake of the Ebola scare with patients’ names, photographs, and even family information entering the public sphere.

Ebola hysteria raises questions not only about how to contain the disease, but also to what extent Americans value their healthcare privacy.  What liberties are Americans willing to sacrifice to calm their fears?  How to balance the concern for public welfare with legal and ethical privacy principles?  For example, will Americans tolerate profiling travelers based on their race or national origin as precautionary measures?  What type of reporting norms should govern Ebola cases?  Should reporting the existence of an Ebola case also include disclosing the name of the patient?  I don’t think so, but the jury appears out for many.

The Ebola “Czar”

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs and PrawfsBlawg.]

In the wake of Craig Spencer’s decision to go bowling in Brooklyn, governors of three major states—Illinois, New Jersey, and New York—have imposed new Ebola quarantine rules that are inconsistent with national public health policy, are not likely to protect Americans from Ebola, and may compromise the response to Ebola in Africa, as health care providers may find it too burdensome to volunteer where they are needed overseas. Don’t we have an Ebola czar who is supposed to ensure that our country has a coherent and coordinated response to the threat from Ebola?

Of course, the term “czar” was poorly chosen precisely because Ron Klain does not have the powers of a czar. He will oversee the federal response to Ebola, but he cannot control the Ebola policies of each state. Unfortunately, on an issue that demands a clear national policy that reflects medical understanding, public anxieties will give us something much less desirable.

Is Corruption Partly Responsible for the Ebola Crisis?

Guest post by Matthew Stephenson
[Cross-posted from The Global Anticorruption Blog.]

There’s been an interesting mini-debate over at the FCPA Blog about whether, or to what extent, corruption is partly responsible for the severity of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Richard Cassin, the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog, argued that it is. He made this argument initially in a post from this past August entitled “Ebola tragedy is also a story of graft.” He offered as evidence the following observations: (1) the WHO and other observers estimate that a very high percentage–perhaps up to 25%–of global spending on public health is lost to corruption; (2) the very high Ebola fatality rates in West Africa have been attributed in part to the lack of adequate intensive care facilities to administer the treatments; and (3) the countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak–Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria–are reputed to be highly corrupt, as indicated by their very poor scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Many critics who commented on Cassin’s initial post complained that the evidence offered did not in fact support the strong claim in the title that corruption has contributed significantly to the Ebola outbreak. In particular, the critics pointed out that: (1) the fact that a great deal of public health spendinggenerally is lost to corruption does not actually tell us whether corruption was a major factor in the particular case of the Ebola outbreak, and (2) the low ranking of the affected countries on the CPI likewise–even if we concede that the CPI is a decent measure of actual corruption–does not indicate that corruption caused (in any significant way) the Ebola outbreak to be as lethal as it has been; at most it shows a correlation that might be explained by any number of other factors.

Cassin responded with a second post last month in which he rebutted the critics. He acknowledged that while one can never establish with “scientific certainty” that corruption has a causal effect on the severity of the Ebola outbreak, there is powerful circumstantial evidence that corruption is a “gateway” to this and other public health crises (as well as other problems like terrorism and crime), because it siphons off public resources. Cassin cites to a couple of research papers that purport to show that corruption in general has adverse impacts on public health, in particular because it adversely affects access to clean water and sanitation.

Continue reading

Ebola, Flight Bans, and Politics

By Zachary Shapiro

It seems like the debate over banning flights from West African Ebola stricken countries has become instantly political, with many Conservatives calling for a flight ban. See here. One author, in response to these calls, points to the history of Liberia’s relationship with the United States as a reason that the US should not consider a flight ban. Arguments against a flight ban that are not based on public health principles provide fodder for the talking heads and individuals who want to see this as a political issue.

The real question should be how much good a flight ban would do to halt the spread of Ebola to the United States. Many public health experts, from the CDC to the WHO, do not think a ban would make us safer.

Ebola is only contagious when the patient is symptomatic, and the first symptom is almost always a fever. If a patient does not have a fever, and is asymptomatic, they are not contagious. Thus they do not provide a serious risk of infecting other people, even in the confined quarters of an airplane. This makes temperature screening especially important. This easy screening tool is already in use at airports in Ebola affected Countries.  Continue reading

Inaugural SG Global Chat: Harvard Effective Altruism Expanding to HSPH

SG Global Chat
Harvard Effective Altruism — Using Evidence and Reason to Maximize the Impact of Efforts to Make the World Better

October 8, 2014 12:30-1:20pm, Kresge G-2

Harvard Effective Altruism (HEA) is a student group at Harvard College and Harvard Business School. The group is dedicated to spreading the ideas of effective altruism to better the global community. Previous HEA speakers include Peter Singer, Nick Bostrom, Max Tegmark and Thomas Pogge. This year, HEA plans to became a Harvard University-wide student organization. Come to the first SG Global Chat of the year to hear more about HEA, the events the group has planned, and ways to get involved. Presented by Anders Huitfeldt (ScD Candidate in Epidemiology) and Eric Gastfriend (Student at Harvard Business School).

Light lunch provided. Any questions email studentgov at hsph.harvard.edu.

De-Prioritizing Treatment for Mental Illness May be Due to Flaws in Reasoning

By Kelsey Berry

In a recent article in Science Translational Medicine, former NIMH Director Steve Hyman explores possible reasons for the policy failure to prioritize treatment of mental disorders worldwide, even when evidence and cost-effective interventions are available and validated.

Hyman notes a number of potential factors, loosely falling into four categories.

  1. Stigmatization challenges;
    • Fear of the severely mentally ill
    • Superstitions about the causes of mental illness
    • Attribution of imagined moral flaws or weaknesses to sufferers or their families
    • Belief that mental health professionals are in the profession because they are similarly troubled
  2. Scientific challenges;
    • Relatively slow scientific progress and translation of discoveries into clinically useful diagnostics and therapeutics
  3. Advocacy challenges;
    • Diminished ability of the mentally ill to advocate effectively for themselves
    • Low commercial advocacy due to difficultly in discovering marketable treatments
  4. Flaws in reasoning;
    • A tendency to focus on saving lives versus improving them – a problem that puts most non-lethal disabilities at a disadvantage in priority setting
    • A tendency to distinguish mental disorders from other “biologically based” disorders that we do not control, due to the subjective experience of one’s own (healthy) mind

Though none of the categories above are without normative dimensions, the last category raises two clear points worth mentioning just now.  Continue reading

Live Blogging: Post-Trial Responsibilities Conference, Session 1

By Holly Fernandez Lynch

Today, the Multi-Regional Clinical Trials Center (MRCT) at Harvard University and the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School are co-hosting a daylong conference on “Post-Trial Responsibilities: Ethics and Implementation.”  We’ll be live blogging the conference here at Bill of Health, and video/slides from the conference will be available soon.

The conference was kicked off by Mark Barnes, co-director of MRCT, who pointed to two key statements of ethics that refer to post-trial responsibilities, the Declaration of Helsinki’s Paragraph 34 (DoH) – which Mark referred to as “mysterious,” as it could not in practice mean what it literally says – and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences Guideline 10 (CIOMS).

Mark went on to describe the wide spectrum of issues that may be encapsulated in the simple phrase “post-trial access” – for example, over what period of time is access provided, is it provided for chronic diseases or only transient conditions, is it necessary only till a patient is stabilized or for longer, is it a lifetime commitment, does it apply only to research subjects themselves or broader research communities?  How much evidence should we demand of benefit before imposing post-trial responsibilities?  Exactly what should be provided – only the study drug, whatever was offered to the control group, other supportive care?  Must post-trial access be free of charge?  What about improved infrastructure, knowledge, and other benefits as components of post-trial access?  Our goal for the day will be to clarify the ways in which the Declaration of Helsinki, the CIOMS guidelines, and other ethical standards and regulatory requirements require additional guidance for practical application to the complex real-life circumstances of clinical trials.

The conference’s first panel – “Setting the Stage” – had the objective of introducing current ethical and regulatory approaches, as well as key controversies.  The panel was kicked off by Christine Grady (NIH), who gave a talk on the ethics of post-trial responsibilities, including history, models, agreements, and controversies.  Christine explained that compared to the very clear articulation of researchers’ responsibilities before and during a trial, they have very little guidance on what should happen when a trial is over.  Indeed, they had no guidance whatsoever until the 1990s, when there was both an upsurge in international collaborative research, and HIV research more specifically.  In that context, new efforts cropped up to minimize the possibility of exploitation in international research, including development of the concepts of responsiveness to local needs and reasonable availability of research benefits, as well as capacity building, collaboration, and community engagement. Continue reading

Gilead Announces Access Program for Hepatitis C Drug

For all those who are interested in issues of global health, access to medicines, and drug pricing, yesterday Gilead formally announced its access program for enabling many developing countries to purchase its new Hepatitis C drug, Sovaldi, at low prices. This announcement is particularly noteworthy because Sovaldi represents a significant improvement over the current standard of care for Hepatitis C, as it can cure a much greater percentage of sufferers than could standard therapies, and it does so with many fewer negative side effects. Gilead’s partnership-based program will permit seven Indian generic drug companies to produce and sell the drug in 91 developing countries. The discounts are significant: although Gilead formally charges $1,000 a pill (or $84,000 for a course of treatment) for Sovaldi in the United States, it will charge just 1% of that, or $10 a pill, in India (the total cost there is estimated at $1,800, given the difference in strain prevalence).

The global health community has reacted to the announcement with mixed reviews. The 91 countries in the program include more than half of the world’s Hepatitis C patients. But tens of millions of other patients in large nations like China, Brazil, Mexico, and Thailand are left out of the program. Going forward, some of the excluded nations may seek to issue compulsory licenses in an effort to expand access to Sovaldi.

Gilead has also drawn fire in the United States for Sovaldi’s $84,000 sticker price (which, for various reasons, very few if any will actually pay), to the degree that members of both houses of Congress have asked Gilead to justify the price of the drug. Those opposing Sovaldi’s price have generally not come out publicly against the high price of many orphan drugs, which can cost $250,000-$350,000 per year. But because Hepatitis C afflicts about 2.7 million people in the US, as compared to the few thousand people with one of the relevant orphan diseases, its impact on insurers (both public and private) is likely to be much larger (as this very blog has previously noted).  Continue reading

Harvard Effective Altruism: an event today, Michael Kremer on Sept. 10, and a fellowship opportunity

A message from Harvard Effective Altruism:

On Saturday, Sept. 6 at 3pm in Sever 111, we are holding a giving game / donation discussion and an information session for Harvard students interested in our organization. We’ll explain what effective altruism is and what HCEA does here on campus. If you’re new to HCEA, you should definitely check it out!

Wednesday, Sept. 10 at 4:30pm in Science Center Hall A: Prof. Michael Kremer – a development economist at Harvard – will give a talk entitled “How can individuals reduce global poverty?” He’ll discuss the ways that individuals can use both their money and their careers to contribute to poverty reduction and international development.

All semester long! HCEA is hosting its third Philanthropy Fellowship program for Harvard undergrads and graduate students. Fellows will attend talks from speakers like Harvard professor Steven Pinker, Rob Mather of the Against Malaria Foundation, and Center for Applied Rationality president Julia Galef; learn about effective altruism at weekly dinners with other fellows and speakers; get to know likeminded students at discussions and social events; and fundraise for effective charities! You can find more information and apply on our website before 11:59pm on Sunday, Sept. 14th.

We hope to see soon! Altruistically yours,
Ales and John

Ebola and the Return of Quarantine

By Wendy Parmet
[Ed. Note: Cross-posted from HealthLawProf Blog.]

Last month’s riots in an Ebola-infected slum in Monrovia, Liberia demonstrated anew the perils of relying on quarantine, and similar highly coercive public health laws, to contain highly contagious diseases.

At first blush, Ebola viral disease (EVD) is exactly the type of disease for which broad quarantines (more precisely, sanitary cordons) would seem appropriate. Transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, EVD can spread rapidly through a community, as it has done in several West African nations. Although experimental treatments and vaccines offer promise for the future, they have not yet been shown to be effective in humans; nor are they readily available. As a result, health officials are forced to rely on tried and true public health strategies, such as identifying cases, isolating and treating them with strict infection control measures, and monitoring their contacts. Needless to say, doing so is very challenging and very expensive, especially in highly urbanized areas, with weak health systems.

Given the challenges, health officials and government leaders are often tempted to call in the troops, and rely on more heavy-handed measures, such as imposing sanitary cordons around whole towns or neighborhoods, quarantining those who have had contact with patients, and restricting travel into and out of affected regions. Although the impetus for these measures is understandable given the magnitude of the EVD threat, history suggests that such highly coercive tactics frequently backfire. Like the military-style show of force employed by the police department in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this summer, highly coercive public health measures can undermine the public’s trust in authorities. Thus, rather than reduce travel, identify contacts, and come forward if they show symptoms, individuals are more apt to try to leave affected areas and avoid the health care system. Or they riot, as they did in Monrovia and China during the SARS outbreak. In any case, the problem is made worse not better. Continue reading