The Pros and Cons of Sharing Data in Public Health Emergencies

August 5th, 2016 by Alexandra Podolny

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By Lauren Morowit, CHHS Research Assistant

The recent announcement of locally-acquired Zika cases in Florida, a count currently at fifteen, has the public health and medical world on alert.  The potential panic that could ensue from an outbreak of the Zika virus in the United States serves as a catalyst for discussing the benefits and dangers of sharing data in public health emergencies.

The trade-offs involved in sharing scientific information early and maintaining the review process emphasize the need for establishing a system for publishing and communicating data in the midst of a disease outbreak.  The primate center at the University of Wisconsin is paving the way for a more scientifically transparent approach by quickly disseminating the results from lab research focusing on the Zika virus.  Dr. David O’Connor is leading a team of researchers that has been infecting pregnant female macaques with the Zika virus and subsequently posting the data to a website accessible to the public.  This process is being praised by some scientists for its transparency and being criticized by others for its lack of accountability.

How does society balance the need for making valuable information readily available during a public health emergency and also ensure that the data is both ethical and accurate?

Although there might not be a clear answer to that question, there are pros and cons to consider:

Pros

  • A more open process for sharing scientific data will accelerate the response to virulent disease outbreaks and epidemics
  • Shifting the focus from publishing in academic journals for the purpose of career advancement to addressing public health issues head-on
  • Building global partnerships to cultivate a more collaborative approach
  • Allowing pharmaceutical companies to develop countermeasures based on emerging evidence
  • Overcoming the hurdles of scientific journal publication timelines and utilizing existing technological platforms for communication
  • Stressing the importance of preventing the spread of serious illnesses and saving lives

 

Cons

  • Compromising the quality and accuracy of data by eliminating a peer review process
  • Ethical considerations focusing on research and product development prior to and during public health emergencies
  • Lack of awareness about pre-publication data and results sharing mechanisms
  • Privacy concerns involving the publication of some identifiable health data
  • Capacity development in resource-poor settings to support research and product development for emerging pathogens
  • Addressing the concerns of animal rights activists and the contested methods of using animals for testing in some clinical trials

In the example of a public health emergency, decision-makers must measure the impact of the social good that is rendered by ubiquitous information sharing.  The international stakeholders at a World Health Organization (WHO) consultation in September 2015 agreed that the benefits of sharing data outweigh the risks but have yet to develop a global standard practice.  The impending effects of a Zika virus outbreak in the United States are a stark reminder that these pros and cons must be carefully evaluated in order to protect the interests of society at large.

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