Discussion: Zika – an epidemic of signification?

In addition to being a biological and disease-causing agent, the Zika virus is also acting as an “epidemic of signification” (Treichler 1987): a lightning rod for social and political relations, economic fault-lines, gender inequalities and much else besides. As the perspectives presented here demonstrate, there are clearly a number of ways that social scientists, in conjunction with biomedical researchers and scientists, can help us think all this through. From a theoretical consideration of how we frame the issues, to careful reflection on local and regional concerns, these interventions can only enrich our understandings and debate.

The global concern around Zika has brought to international attention the social conditions of women in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and their capacity to access resources or make choices with regard to their reproductive health. Lucy Lowe demonstrated how the gender politics surrounding these issues often place women in dangerous positions, where they have little choice but to resort to unsafe methods. She highlights the necessity of building consideration of these issues into official advice on the outbreak.

Urgent research has focused on establishing the relationship between Zika infection in pregnant mothers and babies born with microcephaly. There have been new findings but the link remains unclear. An unprecedented and welcome initiative has seen 30 leaders in the global scientific community commit to open access sharing of any emerging data on the Zika virus in order to better and more rapidly respond to the growing outbreak (here for a list of the contributors). Speaking to Sudeepa Abeysinghne’s insights into the often precarious position that the WHO occupies and the balance the organization must strike between under-reacting and over-reacting to possible pandemics when presented with uncertainties and unknown risk, the contributors have stated that this pledge to open access was spurred by the WHO’s declaration of a PHEIC and lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak.

As scientists continue to work, reports continue to pour in. China has reported its first case of the virus and three people have been treated for the disease in Australia, including one child. Meanwhile, the outbreak continues to spread in Latin America. Hannah Lesshafft’s prompt to consider whether Zika is a disease of poverty is called to mind, as inequality and socio-economic factors continue to impact significantly on local people’s, and in particular women’s, ability to protect themselves, secure their living environment, obtain medical treatment, access child disability support if necessary, or even see a doctor. The importance of researching and surveilling disease in context in order to design appropriate and effective control, as urged by Luciana Brondi, is highlighted here. Debates as to whether or not wiping out Aedes Aegypti mosquitos is the solution, if that’s even possible, are taking place, affording publicity to the pricey products of biotech companies. As Alex Nading expounded and further explored in conversation with the audience, GMOs and vaccine development are risky investments for private companies as their financial longevity depends on there being an epidemic in the first instance. Aedes Aegypti has adapted to humans and thrives in spaces created by urban life, and particularly within impoverished conditions, such as poor housing, poor waste management, and lack of clean running water. In the on-going alarm of the present global health crisis, our speakers caution and remind us that although high-tech innovations are certainly worth considering and even enacting, the original wisdom of “low-tech” (Alex Nading) public health interventions worked then, and are just as imperative now.


Work cited

Treichler, P.A. (1987). AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification. Cultural Studies 263-305.


Ting Ting Shum is a PhD student in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

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