By Rosie Alger
Elm Staff Writer
Throughout Brazil Equador and all over Latin and Central America, the Zika virus has become an active threat, and it is continuing to spread.
Zika is a disease transmitted through mosquito bites that has mild or inactive symptoms but poses serious issues for pregnant women and their children. It has been linked to many critical birth defects and brain damage in newborns. In a time where much is still unknown about the virus, affected countries are asking women to refrain from becoming pregnant until the disease can be more controlled. This poses serious problems, for women who are largely isolated from any reproductive health options that allow them to choose for themselves whether or not to become pregnant.
The Center for Disease Control has made the Zika virus one of their top priorities and according to an NPR article by Jason Beaubien, “CDC is one of the lead global agencies in the battle against this virus, and officials there say the outbreak is far from over, with major challenges ahead. The mosquitoes that spread Zika have been developing resistance to the most common insecticides. Researchers at the CDC’s labs in Atlanta are studying patterns of resistance and trying to figure out how to overcome them.” While researchers are scrambling to understand the disease, government officials are at a loss for what to do to prevent more public health problems. They have resorted to a calling on women to simply not get pregnant.
“It’s unprecedented, and it places the burden squarely on women,” said Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on NPR’s “All Things Considered” “Authorities here in Brazil but also Ecuador, Colombia and Jamaica, are encouraging women to delay getting pregnant. El Salvador has gone even further. It’s asking women not to get pregnant until 2018. And as you can imagine, there’s been a huge outcry by women’s groups. You know, first, this is a part of the world where women often don’t have a lot of control over when they get pregnant. There are high levels of teenage pregnancy. Sexual violence against women is very high, and in many poorer regions, women have little access to birth control.”
According to the same story, this is an area where many pregnancies are unplanned, the whether due to a lack of birth control or to sexual assault. For governments to place this responsibility for public health on the same women that they are denying reproductive health rights is irresponsible and unreliable. Not only do many women not have access to contraceptive methods, but in many of these countries abortion is illegal and extremely dangerous.
Garcia-Navarro also said, “Abortion is illegal throughout much of Latin America. El Salvador, for example, has a blanket ban. They actually put women in prison who they suspect to have attempted to have an abortion. Here in Brazil, there are only rare cases it’s allowed. So again, women’s groups are saying it’s cynical to tell women who have no control, often, over when they get pregnant to delay it and then not to allow them a safe, legal way to terminate the pregnancy if the child has a severe birth defect like microcephaly. Even in a country like Brazil, which has a national health service, you know, infants with microcephaly are often not getting adequate treatment, and poor women may not have the resources to care for that infant. And so again, women’s groups are saying, we need to reopen this debate.”
There is still so much we don’t know about Zika. We don’t even know if it is truly the cause of the microcephaly that is causing the brain damage in infants. We do know that there are certainly connections between the two, but many diseases are transmitted by mosquito bites, and the research just isn’t concrete right now. “They are really trying to nail down that link with absolute certainty. There’s been very little research into Zika before now, so in many ways, investigators are starting from scratch,” said Garcia-Navarro.
There are also other health concerns that are tied in with Zika research right now. Beaubien wrote, “The additional problems include cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome popping up in countries soon after the arrival of Zika. Guillain-Barre is a temporary but at times debilitating neurological disorder that can cause mild tingling and weakness — or that can paralyze.”
Clearly there are some major health concerns associated with the disease and in desperate times where the virus is spreading and there is no current vaccine or medicine for treatment, it is understandable that governments across the area would want to say something to the public to ease concerns about a problem over which they have very little control. It is irresponsible, however, to not pair this “guidance” to women to not get pregnant with a serious nationwide conversation of how to help women accomplish that and protect them from unwanted pregnancies. At the very least, a good place to start would be to crack down on a culture of sexual assault that is horrible enough in its own right but right now could also lead to a whole group of unwanted children facing life with brain damage.
Currently, the CDC has only documented a handful of cases within US states and territories. Outbreaks are expected to increase in upcoming months as temperatures rise. As a result some areas within US borders may be affected come summer time. Visit cdc.gov for more information.