By now you’ve probably heard of Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that's been sweeping through South and Latin America. The virus causes fairly mild symptoms in adults, according to Donald McNeil, a New York Times science writer.
"You get a rash, fever, joint pain, headache, red eyes — but almost nobody
is ever hospitalized or dies of it, so nobody had considered this a
terribly serious threat," McNeil said on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show.
But, the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared the Zika virus a "public health emergency of international concern." The Ebola outbreak was also in this category.
So, why is Zika in the same category as Ebola?
In May, an outbreak of the disease was discovered in Brazil, and since then it has spread to more than 20 countries in Latin America, according to the New York Times. Of course, it’s not the flu-like symptoms causing the WHO to freak out.
There is no vaccine for the virus — transmitted by the Aedes mosquito — and it may be responsible for an upsurge of babies born with microcephaly.
Microcephaly is a rare birth defect that causes babies to have unusually small heads. That can also mean underdeveloped brains, which, according to McNeil, won't ever heal.
"Some of the babies die very quickly, and some of them are developmentally disabled for the rest of their lives," he said.
In response to the virus' potential effects on babies in utero, El Savador's Deputy Health Minister is urging El Salvadorian women to avoid pregnancy until 2018.
"We'd like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they
take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between
this year and next," Eduardo Espinoza said in a press conference.
Apparently, the El Salvadorian government thinks pregnancy — and its prevention — is all on women. Rosa Hernandez, director of El Salvador's Catholics for a Free Choice, recently told Broadly that “calling attention to women not to become pregnant has caused outrage amongst all the women's movements [in El Salvador].”
I would guess that “outrage” is something many women in El Salvador feel toward the state, though, because it is a country where women are thrown into jail for losing a baby.
Yep, the entire country boasts a total ban on abortion.
Unfortunately, El Salvador isn’t
the only Zika-riddled country that denies women this basic human
Zika’s irony is that its mayhem is mostly confined to countries with super draconian approaches to reproductive rights. Even in Brazil — one of the hardest hit countries — abortion is only legal in cases of rape and danger to the woman’s life.
Luckily, some women are helping in this time of crisis. Dr. Rebecca Gomperts runs an abortion-by-mail service called Women on Web. The organization just announced that it will send free abortion pills to any woman who can provide them with a laboratory test indicating that she has contracted the Zika virus, according to a press release.
During the press conference where she announced Zika’s status, Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO Director-General, said:
“A coordinated international response is needed, to improve surveillance, the detection of infection, congenital malformations, and neurological complications; to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy.”
A "coordinated international response" is needed because there are so many women without access to abortion, which is always a fundamental human right. According to Jill E. Adams, executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice, who spoke to Revelist via email:
Common sense, indeed.
"Common sense and compassion would dictate that governments ensure access to contraception and abortion in light of such a public health crisis as the Zika virus. Meaningful access would require the lifting of criminal bans and restrictions on abortion provision, as well as public education campaigns and the establishment of community clinics in rural and urban areas with fully funded reproductive health care."
Note: This piece has been updated with a quote from Jill E. Adams.