How the Zika Virus became a women's issue

by Maria Perica

Summer is a season that many people enjoy; the temperatures rise, the family takes trips to the beach, and school is out of session.  However, this summer, world public health officials will not be able to take much time off, as summer is also a season beloved by the Aedes species mosquito, the mosquito responsible for the transmission of Zika Virus. Zika Virus Disease has been in the news due to its potential to cause serious birth defects, such as microcephaly, an abnormally small head that often leads to an underdeveloped brain. People infected with Zika often exhibit no symptoms or mild symptoms that will go away on their own. Nevertheless, the potential for Zika to cause life-threatening birth defects if a pregnant woman is bitten by an infected mosquito has put the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization on high alert. As temperatures rise and mosquito numbers peak, reported cases of Zika in the United States have started to rise. 

While many prevention efforts, such as screens on windows and doors, are already in place in most areas in the US, a new debate is emerging in multiple countries threatened by Zika- an abortion debate. Unfortunately, many countries and states with climates suitable to the transmission of Zika happen to be places that have placed tight restrictions on abortion and fetal tissue research. 

In the United States, Congress recently fell short of meeting President Obama’s request for funding research into a Zika vaccine. Opposition on fetal tissue research, particularly from the Republican side, has blocked critical progress in understanding how Zika causes birth defects and what can be done to treat them. States such as Florida, that are at the greatest risk of Zika Disease due to a hot and humid climate, have recently passed legislation limiting the ways that scientists can use fetal tissue in research. Many states have also been making abortions almost impossible to obtain. 
In Brazil, a country that has been in the news because of Zika’s potential effects on the upcoming Rio Olympics, women have even less options than they do in the United States. Abortion is a punishable offense in almost all cases, and women must travel very far to find a doctor who will help them.  As a result, many women with Zika Virus are put in a life-threatening situation where they cannot obtain an abortion unless there is already a serious risk present to their health. Much like the advice given to women seeking abortions or contraception in the US, government officials in Southern and Central American countries have urged women to simply avoid getting pregnant. 

The future of research into Zika Virus looks grim. Numbers of pregnant women infected with Zika continue to rise, and cases of babies born with microcephaly are expected to rise as well.  Preventative efforts in the form of sex education and available contraception are lagging in these areas, which have turned to preaching abstinence, a form of sex education that has been shown to be largely ineffective as a long-term solution. As summer approaches, women are left with few options. Although abortion is often brought up as an issue around election-times, time will tell if the increase in demand leads to legislative change.



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