By Hadiya Hewitt
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) Zika is a virus spread primarily through the bite of infected Aedes species mosquito (yet another reason to hate mosquitos). Common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pains and conjunctivitis which last about a week. Fortunately, the disease is rarely fatal, and with proper treatment, most people can recover from the illness. The disease has spread to 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including cases in six of the ten most populous countries in the region: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Guatemala. Ultimately, the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 4 million people will be infected with the disease; considering the range of the Aedes species mosquitos extends into much of Latin America and the Southeastern United States, it is likely that there could be more outbreaks in areas where populations have less resistance to the disease. Zika first appeared in Uganda in 1947, but some populations in tropical areas prone to the disease, including Uganda and Micronesia, developed antibodies to the virus; the presence of these antibodies (or the lack of data?) may explain why no widespread outbreak was recorded until 2007 in Micronesia. The lack of resistance, moreover, makes the current outbreak in Latin America quite worrying for public health officials, as the first “autochthonous” (meaning not imported) cases appeared in Brazil in 2015, meaning that most people in Latin and North America do not carry antibodies for the Zika virus.
Moreover, the strain of Zika virus that appeared in Latin America has been linked to microcephaly in babies. Microcephaly is a congenital condition associated with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development in babies. Before Zika appeared in Brazil, for example, the country only reported several hundred cases of microcephaly; in 2015, the country reported 3,500 cases. Other studies are currently being done to test the association. Regardless to prevent potential transmission of the virus from mothers to children, public officials in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and El Salvador are telling women to avoid pregnancy.
This advice, as critics have already pointed out here, here, and here, is borderline impossible for Latin American women as the Catholic Church, a force to be reckoned with in a region where more than 70 percent of adults identify as Catholic, has banned the use of contraceptives.
As a result of its draconian policies, the use of modern contraceptives (defined as including birth control pills, intrauterine devices [IUDs], condoms, and sterilization) has not caught on, especially among poor and rural women, where sexual education and contraception is often unavailable. In the 18 countries surveyed by the Kaiser Foundation, only three, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, have modern contraceptive use rates over 75%. Most fall between 75% and 50%, and four, Bolivia, Guyana, Haiti, and Guatemala, have use rates below that. Moreover, in all of Central and South America, there are only three countries where abortion is broadly legal: Uruguay, Guyana, and French Guiana. Mexico, Colombia, and Panama allow abortion because of fetal impairment. Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela allow abortions to save the mother’s life, and the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Nicaragua provide no legal access to abortions.
(tw: sexual violence) Compounding the problem of the lack of contraception access and education, is the rate of unplanned pregnancies in the region; by one estimate, more than half of the pregnancies in Latin America are unplanned, and 18% of births are to teenage mothers. Moreover, the threat of sexual violence is very real for Latin American women, where a 2014 PAHO/WHO study indicated that between 17% and 53% of women interviewed reported having suffered physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, and this does not include violence from non-intimate partners. Telling women, who have little access to contraception and little control over their bodies, to simply not get pregnant is horrendous advice.
*However, I cannot in good faith lambast public health officials in some countries in Latin America, and at the same time fail to mention that 32 states do not require schools to teach students about contraception, and 28 states do not require sexual education at all. In the wake of the series of probably-illegal Planned Parenthood videos, several states have also moved to terminate Medicaid contracts with the organization, further limiting a woman’s access to contraception and abortion. Reproductive rights are essential to the fight against Zika, and if we had finished this battle with Roe v. Wade, we wouldn’t be fighting it now, now would we?
Hadiya Hewitt is a second-year in the College. She is from Columbia, MD.