MAASTRICHT. “How real is the threat for us?” This was one of the questions asked at the Faculty of Law during Tuesday’s debate on Ebola, part of the European Access to Medicine week. A sigh of relief rippled through the audience when Remco van de Pas, researcher at the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, answered “nil”.
“The virus is not transmitted through air, the incubation time is short and it doesn’t live long in the victim, because the symptoms are fatal fast. It burns itself out quite quickly”, Van de Pas explains. “We might get a few cases in the West, but with our resources we can isolate them and break the chain of contamination.”
The question further emphasised what turned out to be the theme of the debate: ‘them’ versus ‘us’. “Why does it concern us so little that Africans are suffering and dying?”, asked Wiebe Nauta, a sociologist at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “Médecins Sans Frontières gets very few donations. Meanwhile, when the dog of a Spanish Ebola patient was going to be killed, people demonstrated in large numbers.”
Huub Schellekens, professor of Medical Biotechnology at Utrecht University, had explained earlier that a vaccine could be developed in three to six months – if universities wanted it. “But the research is industry driven and suffers from valorisation dogma.” He feels that all patents regarding Ebola should be revoked and independent production units and specific funding created.
Shouldn’t the money go towards taking better care of the people who are ill now, and improving the health system in West Africa?, asks a student in the audience. Van de Pas agrees to an extent. “We should strengthen the health system, protect health workers and educate people about isolating and caring for Ebola patients. But we shouldn’t forget the long term. That’s a real risk – that we’ll just move on to the next crisis when this one is over.”
This might be an opportunity to address the structural discrimination that has caused millions of people to die from treatable diseases every year, says Peter Schröder-Bäck, a health ethicist from the European Public Health programme. “Health is a human right”, emphasises Fons Coomans, professor of Human Rights and Peace at the Faculty of Law. “The problem is that it’s not recognised as such by all countries. But in a global society you cannot ignore what’s happening in the rest of the world.”
Still, wonders a student in the audience, shouldn’t our first responsibility be ourselves? To a certain level, yes, feels Schröder-Bäck. He recalls a dilemma raised by the philosopher Bernard Williams: “If you can save two random people OR your wife – whom you presumably love – from drowning, who are you going to save? Williams says that’s one thought too many. Sometimes it’s justifiable to choose a loved one over someone who is more distant from you. But where do we draw the line?”
The debate was organised by Amnesty International Maastricht Students and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM). UAEM is a new student organisation in Maastricht that aims to raise awareness of essential medicines (antibiotics, malaria pills, etc.) in developing countries. They are also campaigning for universities to sign an agreement stating that when they sell the rights to a promising new drug candidate to a pharmaceutical company, the company must allow the drug to be made available in poor countries as cheaply as possible.