Women and the Zika Virus

Does the Disease Cause Birth Defects?

Dr. Angela Rocha (C), pediatric infectologist at Oswaldo Cruz Hospital, examines Ludmilla Hadassa Dias de Vasconcelos (2 months), who has microcephaly, on January 26, 2016 in Recife, Brazil. In the last four months, authorities have recorded close to 4,000 cases in Brazil in which the mosquito-borne Zika virus may have led to microcephaly in infants. The ailment results in an abnormally small head in newborns and is associated with various disorders including decreased brain development. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Zika virus outbreak is likely to spread throughout nearly all the Americas. At least twelve cases in the United States have now been confirmed by the CDC. Brazil reported the first cases in the Americas of local transmissions of the virus last year. Getty Images

The Zika virus is a rare disease but one that possibly poses a big threat to women. An outbreak has been brewing across the Americas.

What is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus is an extremely rare virus spreads by animal or insect bites or stings, particularly mosquitos.  It was first discovered in Africa in 1947.

The most common symptoms of the Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Those stricken with the disease may also experience fatigue, chills, headache, and vomiting, among other flu-like symptoms. For the most part, these symptoms are pretty mild and last less than a week.

Currently, there is no cure, vaccine, or specific treatment for the Zika. Treatment plans instead focus on relieving symptoms, with doctors advising rest, rehydration, and medications for fever and pain for patients stricken with the illness.

The CDC reports that before 2015 Zika virus outbreaks were largely confined to parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. However, in May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert for the first confirmed Zika virus infections in Brazil. As of January 2016, outbreaks are occurring in many countries, including across the Caribbean, with the possibility of it spreading to more places

The Zika virus’ effects on pregnancy have brought it into the international spotlight. After a slew of strange birth defects in Brazil, authorities are investigating a possible link between Zika virus infection in pregnant women and birth defects.

Zika and Pregnancy

After a spike in cases of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil, researchers are also studying the possible link between Zika virus infection and microcephaly.

Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly. Other symptoms include developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, seizures, vision and hearing problems, feeding problems, and issues with equilibrium. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and are often lifelong and sometimes life-threatening.

The CDC advises that pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy should consider postponing travel to Zika-affected areas, if at all possible. Those pregnant women who do travel to a Zika-affected area are advised to consult their doctor and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.

Women who trying to become pregnant or who are thinking about becoming pregnant are also being warned against traveling to these areas.

Some of the direst warnings have been for women already living in Zika-affected areas, however.

Why is the Zika Virus a Women’s Issue?

Officials in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica have recommended that women delay pregnancies until more is known about the Zika virus.

For example, El Salvador's deputy health minister, Eduardo Espinoza has said, “We’d like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next.”

In many of these countries, abortion is illegal and contraception and family planning services are extremely hard to come by. Essentially, the El Salvadorian government advises that women practice abstinence to prevent microcephaly as it has a total ban on abortion and provides little in the way of sex education. This unfortunate combination has the potential to provide a perfect storm of medical mishaps for these women and their families.

For one, the onus of family planning is being advised solely to women.  As Rosa Hernandez, the El Salvador director of Catholics for a Free Choice, suggests “Calling attention to women not to become pregnant has caused outrage amongst all the women's movements here. The virus doesn't just affect pregnant women, but also their partners; men should also be told to protect themselves and not impregnate their partners.”

The Zika virus not only underscores the importance of solid health care more generally, but also the need for proper and expansive reproductive health care—including contraception, family planning, and abortion services.