By Rachel Nadelman*
The call by half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean governments for women to put off pregnancies – as the World Health Organization warns the feared Zika virus is “spreading explosively” – is stimulating a new debate on reproductive rights in the region. El Salvador’s Health Ministry has urged women to “avoid becoming pregnant this year and next,” and Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, and others are issuing similar advisories. A mosquito-borne disease spreading rapidly in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, Zika is blamed for causing devastating neurological birth defects in newborns whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy. The U.S. Center on Disease Control has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to the more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries now hosting the disease.
Named for the Uganda forest where it was discovered in the late 1940s, Zika is carried and transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, best known as the vector for life-threatening viruses like yellow fever and dengue. Within the Western Hemisphere, the Aedes population has increased drastically in recent years, linked by scientists to changes in climate. Yet Zika’s arrival in Latin America last year, first documented in Brazil, and subsequent expansion did not attract major attention until the pattern of birth defects emerged. Zika’s symptoms are sometimes imperceptible or typically mild, including fever, joint aches, and conjunctivitis, so health officials did not consider it a major threat to the general population. Although definitive clinical proof is still lacking, Zika is now linked to microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes children to be born with small heads because of abnormal brain development in the womb or immediately after birth. The emergence of Zika in Latin America has coincided with a more than 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly. (Brazil has reported 4,000 cases in the past year, a drastic increase from just 150 in 2014). The babies suffer from poor brain function and reduced life expectancy. Doctors are finding traces of the virus in the brains of microcephaly-inflicted babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.
Warnings and advisories offer no help to the millions of women who live in afflicted countries. Governments are launching fumigation programs to reduce the Aedes mosquito population and thereby limit disease transmission. Asking populations to refrain from having children appears a bit facile, if not cynical, in a region with low levels of access to birth control for reasons that range from religious dictates to economic obstacles. Severely restrictive abortion laws also complicate potential parents’ options. Five Latin American countries (including Honduras and El Salvador, hard hit by Zika) ban abortion without exception, even to save the mother’s life. Others criminalize abortion with few allowances. According to the Guttmacher institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Zika’s link to these devastating birth defects has generated unprecedented public discussion throughout Latin America about women’s and families’ rights and responsibilities for taking control of reproduction. It is far too early to know if the health advisories will have practical impact on the incidence of microcephaly – or on attitudes toward reproductive rights over the longer term.
February 1, 2016
* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service. Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.