Bioethics Blogs

Zika Outbreak Raises Familiar Ethical Questions

Noni MacDonald summarizes the all too familiar ethical challenges surrounding the recent outbreak of Zika virus.


Zika virus disease is exploding across the Americas and some researchers predict that the mosquito-borne virus will infect approximately 3 to 4 million people in 2016. On February 1st the World Health Organization declared the recent outbreak of Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects a “public health emergency of international concern”.

Zika virus was first recognized in the 1950s in a narrow equatorial area in Africa and Asia. Mosquitos, the same ones that transmit dengue and chikungunya viruses, transmit the Zika virus. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil. Since then the spread across the region has been astoundingly quick, with reports from more than 20 countries across the Americas.

While Zika virus disease is usually mild and self-limited with fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis lasting from several days to a week, it can cause serious complications including Guillain-Barre Syndrome (progressive symmetrical paralysis and loss of reflexes starting in the legs). Zika virus disease can also cause significant problems for pregnant women including stillbirths as well as birth defects. Children are born with abnormally small heads and brain damage – a condition known as microcephaly. The potential risks to pregnant women are such that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States and the Public Health Agency of Canada now recommend that women who are pregnant (in any trimester) consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.

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.