The Zika virus as a global threat

Arvitha Doodnath writes about the threat the virus poses to the entire world, especially to the Brazilian Olympic Games

The Zika virus as a global threat

12 July 2016


The rapid spread of the Zika virus poses a threat to the entire world and could have devastating consequences if not stopped. It cannot be ignored.


The Zika virus is spread to humans usually through a bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito[1]. The symptoms of this virus which present themselves in humans are usually fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis[2]. The illness usually lasts for several days. Most people are not sick enough to go to hospital to seek treatment and people rarely die from being infected. But the Zika virus can be very harmful to an infected pregnant woman. The virus is linked to microcephaly[3] as well as other severe brain foetal defects.

At the Pan American Health Organization in May 2015, an alert was issued following the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil. In February 2016, The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Zika virus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Affected Areas

Prior to 2015 the areas where Zika was found were limited to parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and Pacific islands[4]. In May 2015 Brazil was reported as an infected area[5]. There are currently outbreaks occurring in almost 60 countries and territories[6]. It is difficult to predict how and where the virus will spread[7]. Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands and American Samoa have reported having the Zika virus infections[8]. No Zika infection case been reported as contracted within the US, but there have been cases reported of infection during travel abroad[9].

How does one prevent the spread of Zika?

There currently exists no vaccine against infection by the Zika virus. One needs to try and prevent Zika by avoiding mosquito bites. Mosquitoes usually spread the Zika virus during the day.  They can also can spread dengue[10] and chikungunya[11] viruses. To prevent the disease via sexual transmission the use of condoms is highly recommended.

Other ways of preventing oneself from mosquito bites are to:

- wear long sleeved shirts and long pants

- sleep under a mosquito bed net[12].

- use registered insect repellents with one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol[13].

- take steps to prevent your child from mosquito bites i.e. dress your child in clothing that covers their arms and legs, cover their beds with mosquito nets[14].

Treatment of Zika

An infected person can only to treat the symptoms of the virus i.e. get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration, and to take pain medication, but not any aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs until dengue is ruled out to prevent the risk of bleeding[15].

Issues with the 2016 Olympics 

The WHO issued a statement on 28 May which says that cancelling or changing the location of the games will not significantly impact on the transmission of the virus[16].  However, an open letter addressed to the WHO by over 100 prominent doctors and professors addresses the risk of the spread of infection of the Zika virus, as well as calls for the postponement or moving of the Games to somewhere else.  The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) current recommendation is that pregnant women should not travel to areas suspected of having the Zika virus.

Since the Olympic Games will take place as scheduled, a more pertinent question would be to ask is who is going to be held responsible if people are infected at the Games this year?  There are only a set of guidelines that the CDC issued with regards to prevention.  If people are infected in Brazil can they sue the WHO or the Brazilian Olympic Committee?  If a person follows the guidelines issued by the CDC and still becomes infected can the CDC be sued for ill informing? A parallel is the Italian government’s hiding the cholera epidemic in 1911 for fear that news of it would damage the celebration of the country’s 50th anniversary of unification.

The following questions arise:

- Does continuance of the Olympic Games violate human rights and bioethical principles?

- Can we really sit back and allow the principles of autonomy[17], justice[18], non-maleficence[19] and beneficence[20] be violated because of the costs of postponing and relocating the Olympic Games?

- Would pregnant women who become infected with the Zika virus and give birth to children with microcephaly and other foetal defects be able to sue in damages or delictually for damages caused to their unborn child due to the fact that not enough protective measures were taken?  It is not only dangerous but negligent to just issue warnings and other guidelines, and not to take other active measures to curb the spread of a potentially deadly virus.


Much remains to be learnt about the Zika virus and it may well be that the decision to continue the Olympic Games will turn out to be a mistake. Infection of visitors should, and may, have legal consequences.

Arvitha Doodnath, Legal Researcher. HSF


[1] http://www.cdc.gov/zika/about/ accessed on 30 May 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This is a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than other children of the same age and sex. Accessible on http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/microcephaly/basics/definition/con-20034823 accessed on 30 May 2016.

[4] http://www.cdc.gov/zika/geo/index.html accessed on 30 May 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dengue is a painful, debilitating mosquito borne viral infection which causes flu-like illnesses and can be lethal. Accessible on http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs117/en/

[11] Chikungunya is a viral disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. It causes a fever and severe joint pain. Other symptoms include muscle pain, headache, nausea, fatigue and rash. Accessible onhttp://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs327/en/

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The principle of autonomy is allowing for a person / patient to have all the information before then and make an autonomous decision.

[18] The principle of justice is where all people are treated equally with a moral obligation to act fairly and equitably.

[19] The principle of non-maleficence is trying not to harm the person with one’s actions.

[20] The principle of beneficence is to act to the benefit of the person.