The emergence and spread of the Zika virus is worrisome on many levels: it highlights the impact of global warming on the spread of infectious and mosquito-borne diseases and the reality that the poorest families in Brazil and other countries disproportionately bear the burdens of global warming. Without the luxuries of well-built homes and screened windows, those who dwell in low-income neighborhoods and shanty-towns are disproportionately exposed to Zika virus due to crowded living conditions, reliance on public water pumps that often are surrounded by pools of standing water, and lack of adequate public health resources.
Responses to news of the Zika virus are, for the most part, well-intended, yet raise additional concerns. Women I’ve spoken to in Mississippi (one of the states in danger from Zika) explained that she doesn’t know what to do about sex. She is hearing “everywhere” that women should not get pregnant because of the danger of bearing babies with microcephaly, but in Mississippi it’s nearly impossible to get an abortion. She even has trouble getting hold of reliable contraception.
For women in Brazil (see “The Zika Virus and Brazilian Women’s Right to Choose”) and certain other Latin American countries that prohibit abortion, women are forced to choose between illegal, backstreet and often unsafe abortions and the fear of carrying a pregnancy to term in a setting in which pictures of tiny-headed babies grace the front pages of newspapers nearly every day (see “Pregnant Bodies as Public Property“.)
Struggles to control women’s sexuality and fertility play out in legal, medical and domestic arenas. While media and public health sources encourage women not to fall pregnant, the prevalence of both stranger rape and intimate partner violence force many women into pregnancies that, in the wake of Zika, are not only unwanted but also likely to carry the extra stigma of failure to obey “sensible” public health directives. The problematic history of public responses to viruses such as HIV-AIDS that may be spread through sexual contact, especially when the virus initially impacts disenfranchised or stigmatized groups, is further cause for concern. The Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network (LACWHN) have issued a strong statement reminding public health authorities not to use this latest crisis as a tool for violating women’s human rights.
As in the earlier rhetoric about “going to war” against Ebola (see Why Can’t the US Respond to the Ebola Outbreak Without “Waging War” and “Sending Troops”), President Obama’s request for funding to address Zika has been framed in the media as “Obama Asks Congress for $1.8 billion to Combat Zika Virus.” This language is more than metaphorical. While the virus is the presumptive enemy, it’s an enemy that takes cover in human populations which easily become “military” targets. There is a problematic history of indiscriminate aerial spraying of poisonous chemicals — especially in poor regions — whether well-intended or not. And unlike the Zika virus, defoliants such as Agent Orange are proven dangers to the health of fetuses.
In fact, as of yet there is no proof that the Zika virus causes microcephaly. That lack of evidence should raise questions about the speed and vehemence of the campaigns pressuring women not to become pregnant, especially when actual proven public health measures remain underfunded and under-enforced in many places. The Flint Michigan water crisis is but the most recent example, but more broadly, here in the United States, Zika virus-bearing mosquitoes have shown up in Florida and other southern US states where many people are unable to access basic healthcare because their state governments have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (see “The State(s) of the Affordable Care Act“).
Can something good come out of the Zika crisis? I’d like to think that it will drive progress on addressing global warming and environmental conditions in low income communities, making contraception and abortion universally available and extending healthcare access to all people. At the very least, shocked and saddened by the pictures we are seeing in the press of babies born with microcephaly, perhaps the United States will finally agree to sign the International Convention on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities (see “Disabled Rights“).