Bioethics Blogs

Responding to Zika: Ethical Challenges of Zoonotic Diseases

The World Health Organization will hold an emergency committee meeting on the pandemic reemergence of Zika virus and the explosive increase in reported cases of congenital microcephaly in Brazil possibly linked to Zika on February 1. The virus is a mosquito-borne infection in the same family as West Nile and dengue. Until 2015, Zika had rarely appeared in the Western hemisphere. The WHO will decide whether the pandemic should be considered a public health emergency of international concern. Hastings Center Fellow Lawrence Gostin and Daniel Lucey suggested that “the very process of convening the committee [will] catalyze international attention, funding, and research.”

Much of the fear and uncertainty around Zika stems from a suspected association between pregnant women infected with Zika and risk of their babies being born with microcephaly, a birth defect characterized by an abnormally small head and brain damage. But much remains unknown about transmission and diagnosis. Christian Pettker, chief of obstetrics at the Yale School of Medicine, wrote in The New York Times, “Fear of these unknowns explains the severity of some of the responses from the medical community,” like telling women in areas with active Zika transmission to avoid pregnancy.

In a December 2015 article in the South African Medical Journal, Solomon Benatar, a bioethicist at the University of Cape Town and a Hastings Center Fellow, reviewed the ethical challenges presented by the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and offered lessons for future public health emergencies. Benatar’s account of the   “interpersonal, public health and global” levels of ethical challenges offers a helpful framework for understanding what is at stake in the Zika pandemic and concerning other zoonotic (animal to human) diseases.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.