Engaging Human Rights in the Response to the Evolving Zika Virus Epidemic

Published in: American Journal of Public Health: April 2017, Vol. 107, No. 4, pp. 525-531. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303658

Posted on RAND.org on March 16, 2017

by Jennifer Rasanathan, Sarah MacCarthy, Debora Diniz, Els Torreele, Sofia Gruskin

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Research Questions

  1. What have public health responses to the Zika epidemic focused on thus far?
  2. How might human rights and related principles be applied to improve future responses?

In late 2015, an increase in the number of infants born with microcephaly in poor communities in northeast Brazil prompted investigation of antenatal Zika infection as the cause. Zika now circulates in 69 countries, and has affected pregnancies of women in 29 countries. Public health officials, policymakers, and international organizations are considering interventions to address health consequences of the Zika epidemic. To date, public health responses have focused on mosquito vector eradication, sexual and reproductive health services, knowledge and technology including diagnostic test and vaccine development, and health system preparedness. We summarize responses to date and apply human rights and related principles including nondiscrimination, participation, the legal and policy context, and accountability to identify shortcomings and to offer suggestions for more equitable, effective, and sustainable Zika responses.

Key Findings

  • Public health responses to the Zika epidemic fall into four main categories:
    1. controlling the spread of the virus,
    2. making recommendations about sexual and reproductive health and increasing access to relevant services,
    3. building knowledge of how the virus affects health, and
    4. making health system changes to meet long-term Zika-related care needs.
  • Incorporating the principles of human rights could help improve these responses by focusing on populations most vulnerable to infection: the economically and geographically marginalized.
  • Reducing poverty and addressing social determinants of health such as access to clean water, sanitation, and housing could make efforts more equitable and sustainable.
  • Addressing legal and policy barriers could help reduce the health and social effects of the Zika virus.

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