Zika Conference at Georgetown Bridges Science and Policy

April 25, 2016 – A diverse group of Georgetown experts explored the complex scientific, legal and ethical questions raised by the Zika crisis at a conference on campus Friday.

The Georgetown Environment Initiative hosted the convening to stimulate dialogue at the intersection of science and policy.

Marcos Espinal, director of the department of communicable diseases and health analysis at the Pan American Health Organization, delivered the first keynote address to launch the conference, and Jesse Goodman, an infectious disease expert, and director of Georgetown’s Center on Medical Product Access, Safety and Stewardship, provided the closing keynote lecture.

“By bringing together experts in science, policy, medicine, law, ethics and the humanities, we illuminate the many dimensions that must be present in successful approaches to Zika,” said Tim Warren, Richard D. Vorisek Professor of Chemistry and co-chair of the Georgetown Environment Initiative.

Science and Policy

One of the challenging areas facing the Americas involves the nuances of mosquito control, the release of genetically modified insects, and media campaigns designed to raise awareness about microcephaly and other severe birth defects related to Zika.

“Georgetown is positioned intellectually and geographically to lead on these areas where policy and science intersect,” said Georgetown professor Paul Roepe, who moderated a panel discussion at the conference. Roepe studies malaria, another mosquito-borne disease.

Global health expert Rebecca Katz, a professor of health policy at George Washington University and adjunct faculty member at GUMC, asked whether it is ever justified for people to enter their neighbors’ property to spray insect repellent on piles of trash or to remove unattended buckets of water, where mosquitos breed.

Doing so may not be possible, as current laws are structured to protect personal autonomy and property, posited Susan Kim, a public health law specialist and deputy director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law. 

Ethical Dimension

Maggie Little, director of Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, addressed the need for media campaigns to warn about the dangers of microcephaly.

“We want to prevent catastrophic birth defects; at the same time, we don’t want to say that those living with the condition have a life not worth living,” said Little, who directs Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics (KIE). “We want to convey both messages simultaneously, and that’s extremely challenging.”

The KIE will help provide advice on the health interests of pregnant women with the Zika virus, thanks to a grant totaling more than $1.7 million from the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust.

Pan American Health Organization

Espinal noted the importance of preparedness when dealing with an infectious disease such as Zika.

"Countries need fully developed systems to detect, prevent and to respond," he said, he said noting that dengue fever and the chikungunya virus are two such diseases many countries are not equipped to manage.

He called on the United States to use its capacity, especially in academia, to offer solutions to public health crises.

"Diseases don't respect boarders,” Espinal said. “We live in an interconnected world."

Lessons Learned from Ebola

Goodman talked about lessons learned from past pandemics, including Ebola, in his keynote remarks.

“There is absolute primacy in communications and cultural understanding when attempting to establish trust in treatment areas,” he said.

The Zika conference was co-sponsored by the Georgetown's biology department, O’Neill Institute,  Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Center for Latin American Studies and African studies program. 

It is also part of a semester-long dialogue on "The Global Future of Security," organized as part of Georgetown's Global Futures Initiative.