February 1, 2016


WASHINGTON (Feb. 1, 2016) – Today, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan declared the recent clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities strongly associated with the Zika virus outbreak in the Americas a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC), and called for a coordinated international response to streamline surveillance and accelerating research to determine the links between microcephaly and Zika.

Members of an emergency committee convened under WHO’s International Health Regulations and advised Chan regarding their conclusion.

Public health and law expert Lawrence O. Gostin, JD, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law, welcomes WHO’s PHEIC declaration and urged the organization to take decisive action, to mobilize funding, and to protect pregnant women’s health and reproductive rights.

WHO’s Silence on its Strategy and Funding

He says, “The WHO made the right decision by calling a PHEIC. But actions speak louder than words. What matters now is for WHO to take decisive action. Margaret Chan was silent on what strategy the organization will take on the ground to control Zika and how she will mobilize the major funding needed for surveillance, mosquito control, and critical research. Without a clear strategy and ample resources, sounding an alert is simply not enough.”

Protecting Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights

Gostin points out that the conditions strongly associated with Zika are not only a health emergency, but also “has deep moral dimensions.”

“Mothers and babies bear the burden, and the next generation is at risk,” Gostin says. “If this wave of Zika infections is followed by a wave of birth defects in nine months, it would be unconscionable. Some countries are asking women to indefinitely delay pregnancy, but most Latin American countries also restrict access to safe contraception and abortion. It is unfair to put such a heavy burden on young, often poor, women. WHO should stand up for women’s health and reproductive rights.”

Travel Advice for Pregnant Women

Gostin disagrees with the WHO decision on travel, particularly for pregnant women. “The WHO did not issue a travel alert for pregnant women not to visit Zika-affected countries. That was a mistake. Parents concerned for the welfare of their daughters would advise them not to travel to affected areas if they are pregnant. This puts WHO at odds with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued a travel advisory for pregnant women. The CDC also advised women considering becoming pregnant to talk with their doctor before traveling. That is the right thing to do from a public health and ethical perspective.”

Last week, Gostin and his colleague Daniel Lucey, MD, MPH, also of the O’Neill Institute, called on WHO to convene the emergency meeting in their JAMA Viewpoint.

Note: Please contact Karen Teber at km463@georgetown.edu to arrange an interview with Gostin.

Click here for a list of Georgetown subject matter experts who can provide comment and context on Zika in the areas of infectious disease (clinical and molecular biology), biology, global health, maternal health, microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University is the premier center for health law, scholarship, and policy. Its mission is to contribute to a more powerful and deeper understanding of the multiple ways in which law can be used to improve the public’s health, using objective evidence as a measure. The O’Neill Institute seeks to advance scholarship, science, research, and teaching that will encourage key decision-makers in the public, private, and civil society to employ the law as a positive tool for enabling more people in the United States and throughout the world to lead healthier lives.