Treating Ebola

October 13, 2014 2:34 PM

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As a historian of epidemics, I study contagious crises from the safe distance of a century or more. But as a physician watching the spread of deadly Ebola, I have been agonizing over my responsibility to help solve this crisis, or at least volunteer to treat its victims. It is hard, if not impossible, to criticize anyone wanting to escape from such danger, especially when so few of us are willing to go there in the first place. But it does force every doctor (and patient) to reconsider the medical profession's presumed ethical obligation to treat the ill, no matter what the risk.

In fact, the history books are filled with accounts of physicians abandoning or avoiding their patients during epidemics. In 166 A.D., the famed physician and anatomist Galen fled Rome during a bubonic plague epidemic. In the 17th century, Thomas Sydenham, one of medicine's most astute observers of ...

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