Spray or Spay? Zika and the fight for women’s reproductive rights

By Josh Ulino


On Monday, February 1 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global emergency over the increasingly rapidly spreading Zika virus, calling it an “extraordinary event” and that it poses a threat to the entire world. That has never been truer than now, as the first European Zika virus pregnancy case was confirmed in Spain, nine cases were confirmed in Florida, and one case was confirmed in Texas in addition to the thousands of confirmed cases of the virus in South America.


At first glace, Zika doesn’t seem like a virus that should be that concerning. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika is spread through the bite of any mosquito of the Aedes genus. The typical adult who is infected with Zika experiences fever, rashes, joint pain, and conjunctivitis for as little as a few days to as long as a week. However, the disease seems to be much more harmful than once originally thought. Since the first case of Zika was confirmed in Brazil in May of 2015, scientists have realized that there are many unanticipated and previously unknown problems associated with Zika. One such problem is directly affecting pregnant women and their partners.


When the Zika virus infects women who are pregnant, their babies are born with birth defects, most specifically microcephaly. Microcephaly is a neurological disorder in which the head of the child is significantly smaller than the body of the child. The disorder may lead to developmental delays, dwarfism, hyperactivity, mental retardation and/or seizures. In Brazil, more than 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly since October. In a normal year, there are less than 200 cases of microcephaly in Brazil. Many Central and South American governments have responded in ways that can be described as no less than sexist, essentially telling women to not get pregnant and delay pregnancy for a certain length of time. These responses have started debates on abortion, birth control, and sex education, debates that will no doubt last longer than the Zika outbreak. The outbreak has not only caused pestilence, but has highlighted social tensions and gender issues.


The amount of time Central and South American governments are waiting for women to delay pregnancy vary. Colombia, the country with the second highest amount of cases of microcephaly behind Brazil, is telling women to wait six to eight months, while El Salvador is telling women to wait until 2018. According to medical historians, this is the first time in history in which governments have advised something like this; however, there are some people who think it could work. Dr. William Schaffer, the chief of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and other preventative disease researchers have suggested that if women can wait two years before having children, there may be a vaccine and Zika will no longer be cause for concern. While from a medical standpoint this may be an effective solution, it ignores some of the realities the women who live in these countries have to face.


Women’s groups throughout Central and South America are fighting back against the government’s suggestions and are using this as an opportunity to argue for greater access to birth control, more sex education, and legal abortions. Health care workers almost never provide contraceptives to teenagers or women who have not yet had a child. Sex education is essentially non-existent because of the religious foundations of a majority of these countries, and these countries have some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. In El Salvador, a place where women are advised to wait until 2018 to become pregnant, a woman is not allowed to have an abortion even if her life is at risk. Moreover, the suggestions made by Central and South American governments essentially ignore the fact that a majority of births in Latin America and the Caribbean come from unintended pregnancies. The Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank that does research on reproductive health issues, has found that 56 percent of births in this region are from pregnancies that are unintended and unplanned. Many of these unintended pregnancies are a result of teenage pregnancy, incest, and rape. In a interview with Reuters, Monica Roa, vice president of strategy at Women’s Link Worldwide, said, “In El Salvador, the recommendation to postpone pregnancy is offensive to women and even more ridiculous in the context of strict abortion laws and high levels of sexual violence against girls and women.”


Until the governments of these Central and South American countries legalizes abortion, improves sex education for teenagers, and makes contraceptives easily available for all who wish to acquire them, there is little to no chance that pregnancy rates will be reduced. Governments need to focus on the only viable option and follow in the footsteps of Brazil. The Brazilian government is handing out insect repellant to 400,000 expectant mothers as health workers and soldiers are traveling around the country and teaching Brazilians how to keep workers at bay. They are also going to teach women contemplating pregnancy how to avoid being bitten by a mosquito. At a time where the world is potentially going to have to face a global health emergency, the last thing governments should be doing is further suppressing women and their health. Rather, Central and South American governments should empower and teach women and men alike how the global community can get through this potential epidemic together.