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Zika virus

Fight against Zika virus a moral issue, WHO expert tells Hong Kong

Georgetown University professor tells Hong Kong that Zika virus battle has ‘special moral significance’ as the poor are disproportionately at risk and the damage is intergenerational

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 9:22am

A world-renowned expert in public health law called the fight against the Zika virus an ethical issue on a visit to Hong Kong last week, because the poor are less well protected from mosquitoes.

Professor Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University, who heads the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre on Public Health Law and Human Rights, called for greater funding support for WHO work to tackle the epidemic during an interview with the Post last week.

The global health watchdog last month launched a six-month plan to deal with the disease, and estimated US$56 million would be needed to roll out medical care and public education programmes.

Gostin said only a tenth of that figure had so far been raised.

While much attention has been focused on the health effects of Zika, with transmission of the virus seen in more than 50 countries, Gostin said there was also a justice issue to be addressed.

“Richer people that have air conditioning can be much better protected than the poor that don’t have air conditioning, because they won’t have mosquitoes circulating in their homes,” he said.

“They are therefore at significant risk ... much greater than that of the general population.”

Gostin said many poorer women cannot afford insect repellent either.

He said Zika has a “special moral significance” as it affects both mother and baby and so has the potential to have a lasting and damaging impact on society.

In Hong Kong, many poorer households face similar problems.

Chen Tianxiang, a single mother who lives with her 12-year-old son in a cubicle flat in Sham Shui Po, laments her helplessness in battling mosquitoes.

Her flat is right above a restaurant, so opening the windows, which do not have insect screens, would bring smells and insects into the home.

“If I don’t turn on the air conditioner, I can’t sleep at all as the mosquitoes are hovering around,” said Chen.

Relying on just HK$2,800 a month in Comprehensive Social Security Assistance, Chen said she cannot afford insect repellent.

Gostin said the international community was not doing enough to combat the virus. “Zika is the next big epidemic and again we are repeating the same pattern. We are delaying mobilising funds until it becomes a crisis.”