Bioethics Blogs

Should we prevent Zika microcephaly using birth control?

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford, @Neonatalethics

The World Health Organisation is to hold an emergency meeting after considerable concern about the zika virus in South America. The epidemic has been of considerable concern particularly because it has been linked to microcephaly (unusually small heads) in newborn babies that can lead to potentially devastating brain problems.

There is fear that this virus (if it is the cause) could spread throughout the Americas, including North America. There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, and no known treatment for children who suffer brain damage in the womb. Officials in Columbia, Ecuador, El Salavador and Jamaica have recommended that women avoid or defer becoming pregnant to prevent their babies being affected. But is it ethical to use birth control to control Zika microcephaly?

Surging cases

In November, Brazil declared a state of emergency following a sudden and unprecedented surge in the number of newborns born with microcephaly. There are reports of almost 4,000 babies born in Brazil in recent months, compared with a normal rate of about 150 cases a year.

Microcephaly can be caused by a range of different factors and illnesses including genetic abnormalities or after exposure to drugs or radiation. In some cases later intelligence may be normal. However, there is a relatively high rate of intellectual disability, epilepsy and other developmental problems in children born with microcephaly. This is because the small size of the head often indicates a very serious problem affecting brain development in the womb.

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.