This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of the GPR magazine.
The first sign of the Zika virus in the Americas appeared last May in Brazil, but it wasn’t until August of 2015 that a team of doctors in Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Brazil, discovered the link between microcephaly in newborns and the mosquito-borne virus. Microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller due to incomplete brain development, is a condition that so far has been unique to Latin America – the first case wasn’t seen until October. with the rapid spread of the disease, Brazil has declared a national public health emergency.
The United States government and other nations have already advised women to avoid travelling to certain countries and territories like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. However, a new problem arises with the 2016 Olympics.
Brazil, which is to hold the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, is the epicenter from which the disease is spreading into South and Central America as well as the Caribbean Islands. Many Olympic athletes are conflicted over whether or not to attend games held in a country that has advised women to avoid pregnancy for the next two years.
Most vocal about these concerns is Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the U.S. national soccer team. In an interview during a tournament she commented “If the Olympics were today, I would not go,” later stating that if conditions were to change or questions were to be answered she will attend. Numerous other athletes, especially women, have raised concerns over the virus, with Kenya threatening to pull out of the games if the virus reaches epidemic level.
This is not the first time that the location of the Olympics has held some concerns. In 2008, China’s air pollution problem was seen as a hindrance to the health of the athletes. But this time, with minimal information on the long-term effects of the disease and the dire potential consequences, the Zika virus looks riskier than past issues that have plagued the Olympics. The International Olympics Committee is working to educate its athletes about the risks of Zika, claiming that health concerns are greatly exaggerated. Many athletes and the Brazil Olympic officials are hoping that, with time on their side, Brazil will able to minimize the risk by putting in preventative measures. The Olympics will also happen during the winter, when mosquitos are less common in the region. However, the problem is not just the Olympics.
In the wake of the national health crisis, which has seen an increase of 147 to 2,400 cases in the last year, Brazil has told its women, “Don’t get pregnant.” While the CDC claims there is not a clear cause-and-effect link and the connection is only circumstantial, the discovery of the virus in the placenta of children affected by microcephaly is damning. World Health Organization (WHO) director general Margaret Chen believes the link between the virus and the brain defect that shows symptoms of blindness and paralysis is growing stronger. The reasoning behind telling women not to get pregnant is clear and even logical, but this is an unreasonable expectation.
More than 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned in Brazil. This, combined with the lack of reproductive rights – abortion is illegal in Brazil – places an unfair burden on the mother to control something she never planned for in the first place. Women in Latin America are not equipped to prevent their own pregnancies. These largely Catholic countries in Latin America have criminalized abortion and lack high-quality contraceptives. El Salvador, the country that called for women not to get pregnant until 2018, forces raped children and women with ectopic pregnancies to carry the child to term. Of those countries that have called for women not to get pregnant, only Colombia allows for abortions, but only in the case of fetal anomaly.
For this reason, University of Brasilia law professor Debora Diniz is bringing a petition to the Supreme Court. The petition hopes to see the – similar to how, in the 1960s, the rubella outbreak in the United States paved the way for . However, if the petition is not successful, women, especially those who are underprivileged and have a lack of sexual health education, will have to grapple with Zika while living under a government that refuses to take immediate action to help them.
Some scientists believe microcephaly might not be a result of Zika, but of something entirely different. If fact, of the 732 cases studied, more than half either were not microcephaly at all or were not as a result of Zika. Zika-linked microcephaly has only been seen in Latin America, mostly Brazil, and not in Africa, where the diseased originated, or Asia, where doctors and scientists have also seen large amounts of cases. So then, what is causing microcephaly? If it’s not due to the mosquitoes, then the surge of microcephaly has something to do with the environment that has cropped up in Brazil recently, and it’s not something that women can easily protect themselves against.
Brazil and Latin America are correct in their assessment that the disease has been blown out of proportion for non-pregnant women who want to visit the country or compete in the Olympic games. Cold weather combined with good preventative measures will most likely prevent female athletes from obtaining Zika. However, the real problem lies with the thousands of women in Brazil and these other Latin American countries who lack access to the same reproductive health rights that Hope Solo or Adeline Grey have. The real risk doesn’t even exist for Brazilian athletes like Aline Silva, a Brazilian wrestler and Olympic hopeful who has had dengue fever twice.
The young, poor Brazilians who live in underdeveloped regions like the northeastern state of Pernambuco, where the first case of microcephaly linked to Zika was discovered, are the most exposed to the detrimental effects of Zika. Their substandard housing is a breeding ground for these mosquitos, that often carry dengue or chikungunya. The residents do not have access to mosquito repellents. They do not have access to sexual education. They definitely do not have access to abortion clinics. It is ineffective for the government to tell these women not to get pregnant – they do not have the ability to prevent it. It is also ineffective for the government to expect these women to raise children affected with microcephly – they have inadequate access to healthcare required to take care of disabled children.
Brazil is correct that Zika will most likely not be a problem for foreigners either competing or spectating at the Olympics. The underprivileged population is most at risk – a risk which Brazil, and the rest of Latin America, hope to abate by telling women not to get pregnant. But the perception that this will do anything is wrong. Nothing will happen without real, effective reproductive health rights and better sex education. The disease is rampant, and scientists and doctors have yet to find a cure or establish preventative measures for the babies affected. And in Latin America, where religion usually trumps individual rights and health, it may be time for countries like Brazil and El Salvador to give a little in the face of this unpredictable disease.