The Zika virus has become international news due to how quickly it has spread across parts of Latin America and Africa and the deadly effects it can have if someone contracts it. The problems with the Zika virus come down to how the disease affects women who are pregnant. Yet despite how it affects these pregnancies, and despite some countries asking citizens to hold off on getting pregnant, the governments of Latin America have not given their citizens any way out of pregnancy —be it with abortion or contraception.
So what is the Zika virus and why is it so scary?
In all actuality, the Zika virus is not dangerous to those who catch it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Zika Virus is a disease spread by the Aedes mosquito and sexual intercourse. Symptoms of infection include a skin rash, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis (pink eye) and an overall feeling of discomfort. According to the Center of Disease Control (the “CDC”), only one in five people infected with the virus will actually get sick. The symptoms for those who do get it, however, are typically mild and only last for around a week.
Being infected as a citizen is not an issue, it is not life-threatening, and the virus itself is fairly contained in certain regions of the world. The most dangerous risk with the Zika virus is the prospect of being infected while you are pregnant.
Birth defects due to Zika virus
In Latin America, the Zika virus is becoming an epidemic. According to the New York Times, more than a million people have been infected with it in Brazil alone. The virus is spreading rapidly, and the worry behind it stems from certain links that show it causes microcephaly in new born babies.
According to the CDC, “microcephaly is a condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than expected.” Essentially, the brain does not develop properly during pregnancy. Depending on the severity of it, it can lead to various problems, such as seizures, intellectual disabilities, development delay and hearing and vision problems.
The New York Times stated Brazil has seen nearly 4,000 babies born with the condition. Other countries are now beginning to see it as well. In an attempt to curb the amount of children born with this, multiple countries, including El Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador, have all asked their citizens to hold off on getting pregnant. Notably, El Salvador has asked their citizens to wait until 2018.
What is the problem?
It has been estimated that more than half of babies born in Latin America are unplanned. This makes sense, as World Abortion Laws claims all but three of the countries in Latin America have abortion laws that are seen as strict, while El Salvador has outlawed it completely. Across the region, abortions are typically only granted in the case of extraneous circumstances, be it the woman was raped or her life is in danger. But the ability for a citizen to walk in and get an abortion is not granted. On top of this, contraception is very hard to come by in Latin America, and most teenagers are not given a proper sex education. They do not fully realize the gravity or consequences of their actions when they engage in sexual acts (the WHO estimates that 18% of births in the region are to teenage mothers.) The attitude towards these views are mostly derived from social norms and the religious views of the region. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 425 million Catholics in Latin America.
The issue of sex education and contraceptives
It is a fairly well-known fact that contraception in Latin America is hard to come by. According to USA Today, in some countries contraceptive is extremely hard to find, such as Haiti, where 62% of people do not have access to contraceptives. There are countries—namely, five: Dominican Republic, El Salvador (again, abortion totally outlawed and citizens told to hold off for two years), Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras—all ran out of contraceptive supplies in 2015. Despite asking their citizens to hold off on pregnancy, Latin American countries have seldom given their citizens the opportunity or ability to halt the process.
The issue of abortion
If countries can ask their citizens to try and keep from conceiving a child, it should make sense that countries give their citizens an option for abortions if they do happen to become pregnant. Yet we are not seeing that in Latin America. They are setting citizens up for a huge risk. But the issue goes beyond just a risk of giving birth to a child with microcephaly. When a citizen’s options are restricted, there is a chance they go out and try to remedy the situation in other ways. In this case, it is not terribly uncommon or unexpected for women to try and get an abortion illegally. Abortions not performed in the care of a doctor can be extremely unsafe, and can even put the woman’s life at risk—not to mention it might not even work. According to the Guttmacher Institute, from 1995 to 2008, 95% of abortions performed in Latin America were illegal.
The argument against it at this point comes down to the principle of religion and the views (mostly male) governments of Latin America have. But with this issue, when there is a potential to have thousands of babies born with this defect, almost a fifth of them going to teenage mothers. All they have done to try and curtail the epidemic is to tell citizens to not have babies, but then they provide them with no way to do it outside of the unrealistic expectation that citizens will abstain from having sex. It seems like the system is not only setting up its citizens for failure, but the system itself is failing as well.
If these countries want to keep from becoming victims to this epidemic, they need to make changes. They need to sit down and ultimately decide what is in the best interest of the people and the country, regardless of views held by principle. The issue of abortion and the lack of access to contraception has been an issue in Latin America for a while, but it is just finally coming to a head. If the countries of Latin America want to get past this epidemic as quickly and painlessly as possible, they are going to have to make some changes. They are going to have to change the permissions people have to abortion and contraception. Because at this point, this is just unfair.
Photo by: Michael Shuey