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