By Samantha Guthrie
The most recent headlines about Zika virus scream its spread into the United States by way of southern Florida, shocking pictures of brain scans of infants suffering from microcephaly, and calls to test all donated blood for Zika. There have been lengthy discussions about access to contraception and abortion restrictions in affected countries. One angle that has been largely overlooked, however, is how Zika virus disproportionately affects women – even outside the abortion debate. The consequences for women infected with Zika are much higher than for men.
The Washington Post calls it “an environmental and health justice issue.” People (in particular women) living in poverty are at higher risk of exposure to Zika. Low income neighborhoods are more likely to have uncollected trash, abandoned buildings, and empty lots filled with the preferred breeding ground for the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitos – old tires, water bottle caps, plastic and Styrofoam containers – anywhere standing water can collect. In multi-lingual Miami, so far Zika’s only foothold in the domestic United States, immigrants without a strong knowledge of English or access to news media in their native languages can miss vital information about how to protect against the virus.
If a woman in a Zika-affected region becomes pregnant, she has few options. To avoid infection, she can take precautions such as the recommended long sleeves and pants (imagine being 8 months pregnant in Miami heat and humidity, swaddled in cloth hand to foot), sleeping under mosquito nets, and using insect repellent (the strong chemicals in which many expectant mothers fear will harm their children, despite CDC assurances that it is safe). The other choice is to relocate. Even amongst the middle class, few can afford to leave their jobs and social networks and move to another city for the length of pregnancy.
The unknowns of the virus further complicate matters – can a woman infected with the virus pass it along to a breastfeeding child? How would that affect that child’s brain development? Will there be adverse effects for the child of a woman infected with Zika virus who later becomes pregnant? How much later must the pregnancy occur after infection to be safe? How long should women run and hide from the disease carrying insects?
In Florida, Planned Parenthood is going door to door providing condoms, mosquito repellent, and informational brochures in multiple languages. 1,000 miles north in Washington, DC, Senate democrats voted against a bill designed to provide $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus. The bill was rejected after Senate republicans choked it with personal clauses, using it to “score political points, jam through unpalatable policy changes and cut money from other programs, including provisions that would hinder access to contraception for women and weaken environmental restrictions on pesticide use,” according to the New York Times. Whether or not you believe that Planned Parenthood should be defunded by the federal government, weighing down this critical legislation with unrelated asterisks is a dirty political trick. It hits even harder with the realization that the vast majority of those writing and voting on legislation in Washington will never face the fear of Zika virus first hand. 98% of Senators are not from Florida (the only state so far where local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission has been reported), and those who are in the risk zone are plenty educated on the risks and preventative measures, and could afford to leave the area if necessary. Most of their constituents do not have that luxury.
To over simplify the issue – does is seem logical to risk Zika-fighting legislation in an effort to restrict access to contraception and abortions for low-resource women when Zika and its complications can be greatly reduced through contraception, and contraction of Zika while pregnant is likely to encourage higher abortion rates? There are many more issues than abortion, and many more clauses tacked onto the funding bill than defunded Planned Parenthood, but this aspect of it seems straightforward. Of course, the Senate is not a single-headed beast. Even the most logical solution, which satisfies the most people, is unlikely to be reached under the current Congressional system, which encourages partisanship and pacifying donors as priorities.
So – is Zika virus a women’s disease? Of course, men can contract the virus, and they can transmit it to a sexual partner, who must then bear the burden of uncertainty over its effects on her future children. Men will get a rash, a fever. Many people in Latin America who contracted the virus have still been able to go to work. Women face a much higher cost of being infected by Zika, whether from a mosquito, or from a sexual partner. The neglect of women’s health, particularly reproductive health, that is characteristic of Congress resurfaces here. If Congress continues to block funding, for whatever convoluted political reasons, Zika could easily move from affecting a few women in Miami, to an epidemic sweeping across the American southeast. We only have to look at some of the hardest hit Latin American countries to see what lies ahead if the risks are neglected.
In the meantime, we might just have to help ourselves.
Samantha Guthrie is a 2017 MPP candidate at the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She serves as Senior Online Editor for the Virginia Policy Review.