Women in Zika affected countries have been advised by their health officials to ‘avoid pregnancy’ in order to minimise their risk of having a baby with birth defects associated with the disease. In El Salvador women are being asked to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018.
Zika is a virus spread through mosquito bites, which in adults causes symptoms such as fever, a rash, joint pain and bloodshot eyes. Most adults recover within 7 days and are free of the virus within around 20. Only 20% of adults who have the virus experience symptoms. Zika is not a new virus and has been prevalent in Africa and Asia in the past.
In late 2015 a Brazilian doctor noted the huge increase in the number of microcephaly cases in his region and linked this with the Zika virus. He believes that there is a link between being infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy, microcephaly and other birth defects.
At this time, the link between Zika and microcephaly has not been proven, but the evidence that there is a link is growing stronger. There is also evidence to suggest that the Zika virus can be transmitted sexually as well as through mosquito bites.
The Zika virus has been spreading rapidly through large parts of Latin America, the location of this outbreak has significance. The majority of countries infected by this most recent outbreak are predominately Roman Catholic countries where abortion is illegal and the population have poor access to family planning education.
The governments' responses to the outbreak have generally been to advise women not to get pregnant. This is little comfort to the thousands of women who are currently pregnant and have been exposed to the Zika virus. In nearly all countries which have been impacted by the recent Zika outbreak, abortion is completely illegal. In Brazil, abortion is only permitted in the case of rape or if the mother’s life is at risk. In El Salvador, where women have been asked not to get pregnant until 2018, it is not permitted under any circumstances and women face up to 40 years in prison if they seek an illegal termination. At present there is no indication that these governments are willing to change their policy in light of the growing epidemic. As a result, anxious mothers await to see whether their babies will have escaped harm or whether they will be born with long term, debilitating health complications which include visual and hearing problems, seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability and mobility problems. These conditions are often lifelong.
To combat Zika, governments in Latin America are putting money into accelerating research and creating a vaccine. However, it is unclear how long it will take to create a vaccine and how long the threat of this epidemic will last. It is perhaps a consequence of the laws surrounding abortion that health officials have asked women to avoid pregnancy in the first place. In any country this advice is at best naïve, but in predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America, this advice may be completly unrealistic. The Catholic church’s recommendations for family planning are either to practice complete abstinence or by calculating when a woman is at her least fertile in her cycle.
Evidence shows that in the US nearly half of pregnancies are unplanned, this figure could rise to up to 56% in the Latin America where Catholicism is more widely practiced. The dominance of Catholicism means that access to family planning and sex education is not as widely available as it is in for example, the rest of the Americas.
In response to questions surrounding the Zika virus, Pope Francis has said that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil”. He believes this advice to be preferable than the risk of babies being born with microcephaly. Some have read between the lines and believe that Pope Francis is hinting that in light of the outbreak, if devoutly Catholic couples in the region needed to use contraception while at risk of Zika, then that would be ok. But he did not say this explicitly, and the official position of the Church towards contraception and abortion remains unchanged.
With such minimal and impractical advice from the state what hope is there for millions of women who have been given such an impossible task? It seems as though while health officials and scientists hastily conduct research and try to make a vaccine, the responsibility for quelling this epidemic has been given to women of child-bearing age. It is unfair and unfeasible to ask women who have no access to abortion and limited access to contraception and family planning education to ‘avoid pregnancy’. While these governments are doing the best they can to find a vaccine and discover more about the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly a stronger temporary solution is urgently needed. Men and women in the area must be equipped adequately to keep themselves and their families safe, access to education and contraception is needed. Family planning is not only the responsibility of women.
How can we, in non-Zika affected areas help people access the resources that they need?
As a result of this lack of state involvement, more and more people in this region are turning to charities for advice and support. This is where the public can make a difference. If you would like to support people in countries affected by the Zika virus, you can do this by:
More detailed information on how you can make a difference can be found here.