In April of 2015, an outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus took hold in Brazil and soon spread to other countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Since the outbreak began nearly a year ago, there have been an estimated 1.6 million confirmed cases of Zika infection, the vast majority of which have been concentrated in Brazil. Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that if the outbreak is not brought under control quickly, it could affect 4 million individuals throughout the Western Hemisphere by the end of 2016.
While the symptoms of Zika virus are relatively benign – fever, rash and muscle soreness – the infection has been linked to the birth defect microcephaly in pregnant women. This is a condition that can have debilitating neurological effects where babies are born with abnormally small heads. As a result, government officials in countries such as Brazil, El Salvador and Columbia have begun urging women to delay pregnancy until the outbreak subsides. Unfortunately, for many of the women who are most vulnerable to Zika virus, these suggestions do not constitute practical or realistic solutions to the problem.
To begin with, they ignore socioeconomic issues in the affected countries.
Speak with women in the bustling Brazilian capital city of Brasilia, and chances are you’ll find that most of them are relatively unfazed by the Zika outbreak in their country. Generally speaking, the women in affluent areas in Brazil are well-educated, have access to reproductive health care and aren’t living in close proximity to mosquito populations. In the more rural regions of Brazil, however, the situation is quite different.
In these areas many women work outside, making mosquito bites virtually inevitable. These women also have far more limited access to contraception and health care. As a result, they might never know that they’ve contracted the virus, or that it could put their unborn children at risk of developing birth defects. The Zika virus presents the greatest risk to women in underprivileged areas who have very little control over their reproductive health and education.
These suggestions also ignore established legislation governing women’s reproductive rights.
Brazil is home to some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the world. Abortion is only legal in cases where a woman has been raped, where her life is in danger due to complications, or where the fetus is anencephalic. This doesn’t mean that abortions don’t happen in Brazil, but it does mean that they’re often performed illegally and in unsafe conditions. In some cases, Brazilian women afflicted with the Zika virus might choose to carry babies to term rather than face the dangers and social stigmas associated with abortion.
Finally, they ignore a devastating trend in some Latin American countries.
In El Salvador, where street gangs use rape as a means of establishing control in neighborhoods, sexual violence is disturbingly common. Unplanned pregnancies happen regularly as a result of sexual violence in the poor communities of El Salvador. Likewise, it’s unreasonable for government officials to expect to be able to stem the rising incidence of microcephaly by asking women in these communities to simply avoid getting pregnant.
Earlier this month, the United Nations issued a statement which stressed the importance of upholding women’s rights during the response to the Zika outbreak. In it, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged governments to eliminate laws that restrict access to reproductive health services, and to take concrete steps to provide women with the support and services they need to determine whether or not they’ve become pregnant.
“The advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common,” said Mr. Zeid in his statement. “Upholding human rights is essential to an effective public health response and this requires that governments ensure women, men and adolescents have access to comprehensive and affordable quality sexual and reproductive health services and information, without discrimination,” he continued.
The commissioner also urged governments to look to lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 as they combat the Zika outbreak in their own countries. We can only hope that policymakers and health officials will heed the advice of the UN and WHO in order to develop effective response strategies that maintain the dignity and human rights of the women in these countries.