The Zika virus, a mosquito-born pathogen spreading through the Americas, has been designated an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization.
The WHO has only taken this action three times before, in cases of H1N1 (Swine Flu), Polio, and the Ebola virus. The organization estimates that the virus will reach most of the hemisphere and infect up to 4 million people by the end of 2016. The symptoms of the virus alone are usually mild, but pregnant women or women hoping to become pregnant have been advised not to travel to South America, because of the disease’s association with birth defects, brain damage in babies, and microcephaly, a congenital brain condition.
Brazil is on the frontline of the virus, with 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, and 270 confirmed with evidence of an infection. Yet the olympics are slated to be held in Rio de Janiero this August, which has a lot of folks, including Medical Ethicist Art Caplan, worried. “They have a huge problem with polluted water, the water is full of sewage and they can’t do anything about it, they’re straining their health system, and now they have to fight this Zika outbreak?” Caplan said. “You’re asking too much of the country. Why not postpone it or move it... let them handle the epidemic, and in all honesty, who’s going? Are we all going to run down to Brazil in the middle of the Zika epidemic to root for the olympics?”
The virus is transmitted mainly through mosquito bites, which Caplan says could be helped by mass-distribution of mosquito-proof nets to cover beds, and better public health education. Zika has spread through Costa Rica, El Salvador, and a number of other Central and South American countries, with a few cases spread across the United States, and one case in Massachusetts. Northeast winters particularly mosquito-friendly, but the CDC reports that Zika can be transmitted sexually, which Caplan says is yet one more reason to postpone the olympics. “There’s a lot of sex that goes on among the athletes, notoriously so,” Caplan said. “And remember, there were a lot of condoms given out at previous olympics, are they going to do that here?”
Of course, birth control is hard to come by in many Zika-affected areas, since church doctrine forbids the use of contraceptives and promotes abstinence. “Reality...and experience with abstinence programs says this is a time to let people use condoms,” Caplan said. The medical ethicist is urging Pope Francis to lift the ban on contraceptive use in Zika-affected countries, at least until the virus is under control. “We fully understand what the point is of procreation and reproduction, I’m not asking for any break in that particular view, and I’m not asking him or the church to come out and say well, we have to have abortion on the table as an option for some of these women,” Caplan said. “But condom use, that would just be such a breakthrough.”
Medical Ethicist Art Caplan is Head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center ad the co-host of the Everyday Ethics podcast. To hear more of his interview with BPR, click on the audio link above.