Ebola, a Promising Serum, and Kent Brantly’s Recovery

Is Dr. Brantly’s recovery due to medicine, religious faith, or both?

Posted Aug 21, 2014

Dr. Kent Brantly with a worker in Liberia

"I am thrilled to be alive, to be well, and reunited with my family," Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, said today at a news conference, after his speedy recovery allowed him to be released from Emory Hospital in Atlanta. "God saved my life."

Dr. Brantly’s apparent recovery from the Ebola virus—along with the release from the same hospital, two days ago, of his colleague Nancy Writebol—is among the best medical news this week, standing in stark contrast to the suffering and violence that seems endemic just about everywhere right now, not least in West Africa. I am delighted they survived, not just for their families and friends, but because they were tending to the sick in a region now devastated by the virus, and still very much struggling to contain it.

The news also is excellent in signaling a potential breakthrough with ZMapp, the experimental serum made from tobacco that still awaits FDA approval. According to ABC News, it was administered to Brantly in a “last-ditch” effort to save his life. The aid agency Samaritan’s Purse, for which he and Writebol worked in Liberia, reported that his “condition started to improve dramatically within an hour after getting the serum,” suggesting a strong link, to say the least. Although the Rev. Miguel Pajares, the Spanish priest airlifted to a Madrid hospital, went on to die despite being administered the same serum, Brantly’s and Writebol’s recoveries will invigorate efforts to see that it is tested more exhaustively and dispatched as rapidly as possible to the afflicted in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria.

But in the heightened context of those countries’ public health crises from this still-dangerous and virulent outbreak, with so much at stake for the serum administered and for those still awaiting treatment, the emphatic assertion "God saved my life” acquires special meaning—not least for the doctors standing nearby. What of their role in Brantly’s spectacular return to health, and that of Writebol, whose words on leaving the same hospital on Tuesday reportedly were “To God the glory”? Was the Reverend Pajares not also firmly devout? What would the statement mean if in fact he hadn’t been? What does it imply about the supposed role of God in the ongoing slaughter of thousands of West Africans, too poor to receive equivalent medical care, who may not get the same serum in time?

A patient’s faith in their ability to recover from illness—whether that faith is religious, medical, or psychological—is well-known to support their morale, and thus can play a major role in the placebo effect: the expectation that a pill, ritual, or belief will make one better. As evangelical Christians, Brantly and Writebol have articulated many times their belief in the power of faith and prayer. “As I lay in my bed in Liberia for nine days, getting sicker each day,” Brantly said at the same news conference today, “I prayed God would help be more faithful in even in my illness, and that in my illness or even death He would be glorified.”

Such a statement points to such unshakeable conviction that it may well have helped in Brantly’s recovery. As ABC News felt obliged to report, “It’s unclear if his improvement was directly related to the medication” (my emphasis)—it’s likely too early, and too difficult with two patients, to establish perfect causality.

Yet with hundreds of thousands of West Africans desperate for the same medication—many of them sharing the exact same religious beliefs as Brantly and Writebol—there are justified concerns that the Americans' words about the healing power of their beliefs will in fact minimize the role of the serum and of the superb hospital care they received. There’s also a serious risk that the same, very large group of evangelicals will view the ongoing spread of this toxic virus as due, more or less directly, to a perceived absence of religious faith among the sick and dying. Or as some Liberian and American evangelicals have put it accusingly, that "God is angry with Liberia."

That is, unfortunately, the cruel but all-too-common flip-side to the assumption that recovery, including from a promising serum, is owing to the hand of God.

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