Zika highlights tension around public health directives

With the mosquito-borne Zika virus linked to a dramatic rise in severe birth defects in Brazil, health officials in nearby countries are advising women to delay plans to become pregnant. But women’s rights advocates have countered that the recommendations ignore the reality that many pregnancies in the region are not planned, due to high rates of sexual violence and limited access to contraception.

For public health researchers, this case exemplifies the often contentious gap between officials tasked with caring for the health of a population, and the individuals who are directly affected. This tension is also seen during flu season, when the case for improving “herd immunity” fails to motivate people to get vaccinated.

“It’s understandable that the health of populations is abstract to us, even though it’s just another way of talking about health problems of a great many individuals, each of whom we’d probably sympathize with if we knew them,” said Daniel Wikler, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Ethics and Population Health, in a February 3, 2016 Boston Globe article. “We don’t respond to abstractions with the same urgency that we feel in the case of individual distress.”

Reflecting on New York City’s failed attempt to address the obesity epidemic by banning the sale of excessively large sodas, K. “Vish” Viswanath, professor of health communication, said that public health practitioners need to improve how they communicate the goals of health interventions to the public.

Read Boston Globe article: Zika and the trouble with public health directives