Monday, March 7, 2016

Health Panel Discusses Zika Virus

The Global Health Justice Partnership convened a panel at Yale Law School on March 8, 2015 to discuss the recent outbreak of Zika virus and its impact on reproductive rights. The event was co-sponsored by groups across Yale University, including the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Disease at the Yale School of Public Health, Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Medical Students for Choice, Nursing Students for Choice, Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice, Program in the History of Science and Medicine, and Rights, Health, and Justice.

The panel featured Dr. Albert Ko, Professor and Chair, Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, Yale School of Public Health; Jennifer Friedman, Associate Director of Abortion and Community Programs, International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region; and Sebastián Alarcón, Legal and Advocacy Fellow for Latin America & the Caribbean, Center for Reproductive Rights.

Dr. Ko provided background on what we know—and don’t know—about the recent Zika epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. He noted the particular threat posed by the virus to pregnant women, as Zika-stricken regions have seen a rise in the number of children born with unusually small heads (microcephaly). Ko stressed that the epidemic was not only “a public health emergency” but also “a social emergency.” In addition to improved diagnostics to help screen women for the infection, he highlighted the need for interventions to address the social stigma around Zika and its effects.

Friedman criticized the governmental response to the Zika epidemic, which has focused largely on controlling mosquitos that spread the virus, and telling women to delay pregnancy. The latter was both impractical and unethical, Friedman explained, as many women in the region do not have control of their reproductive lives due to sexual violence and a lack of access to reproductive healthcare. Governments in the region have some of the world’s strictest abortion laws, she noted.

Alarcón examined the global response to the Zika epidemic. He noted that the World Health Organization had recently declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency, and openly called for governments to respect reproductive rights. Other agencies of the United Nations have also emphasized the importance of protecting women’s rights in response to the epidemic. Advocates must utilize this opportunity opened by the global dialogue to push for greater access to reproductive health services on the ground, he said.

In a lively Q&A session following the talk, the panelists emphasized the importance of a holistic, long-term response to the epidemic that addresses key social justice and public health issues. Left unchecked, inequitable access to reproductive health services, a lack of information about the disease and contraception options, and public stigma could all pose significant challenges to combating the epidemic, they said.

The Global Health Justice Partnership, hosted by Yale Law School and Yale School of Public Health, was established in 2012 to promote interdisciplinary, innovative, and effective responses to global health disparities. Building on Yale’s institutional assets, the GHJP trains students in law, public health, global affairs, and other fields to undertake collaborative, real-world research and advocacy to promote health justice.