The health topic that I am looking at is the effect of the Zika outbreak in Brazil on women’s health. The outbreak of Zika in 2015-2016 has since changed several aspects of women’s health including women’s rights, views on abortion and infant health.
The Zika virus itself has been around for several decades, but spread to Brazil in early 2015. The Zika virus is spread by mosquito bites, pregnancy or sexual intercourse. It is easily treatable and typically symptoms in children and adults are very mild and historically there have been no complications (Scutti 2018). However, when the disease spread to Brazil, doctors began to notice a correlation with mother’s infection with Zika and infants being born with microcephaly, a condition where an infant’s head is smaller than normal due to abnormal brain development (Brasil 2016). They also noticed a correlation between the Zika virus and increased miscarriages (Brasil 2016). As a result, the Brazilian government advised families to postpone their pregnancies. This epidemic resulted in feelings of panic especially among pregnant women. One of the biggest women’s rights issues in Brazil is access to abortion. Currently in Brazil abortion is only legal in cases of rape or when necessary to save a woman’s life (Aiken 2016). These restrictions lead to some women seeking abortions from alternative methods. A nonprofit in Latin America called Women on Web, provides access to abortion medications through the internet. They saw a 108% increase in requests for medication after the epidemic broke out (Aiken 2016). Other women used more unsafe methods, including getting illegal surgical abortions or getting abortion medications on the black market (Aiken 2016). In some cases, women in Brazil were jailed for either seeking abortion treatments or going to the hospital for medical assistance after their abortion (Aiken 2016). As a result of abortion and families delaying pregnancy, 120,000 less babies were born than expected during the outbreak in 2015-2016 (Scutti 2018). Another issue that arose from the Zika outbreak was the inadequate response of health officials to respond to the sudden epidemic in Brazil. Researchers found that the previous “global approaches” to pandemic planning and response, such as the ones used for the Zika virus outbreak, were based on “systematic fairness” (Harris 2016). This meant that all of the resources were given out as “equally” as possible among the people affected by the virus. However, this failed to account for the fact that typically “pandemics disproportionately affect the disadvantaged… neutral approaches to global Zika virus… will perpetuate and in fact increase gender, social, and health disparities (Harris 2016). This was especially seen in the fact that although there was governmental response to the outbreak, lower income women were less likely to have access to contraception, abortion, Zika testing and amniocentesis. They were also less likely to be able to care for an infant with disabilities, such as the ones born infected with the Zika virus.
From a cultural standpoint this issue is incredibly important to address because the responses to the outbreak encompasses multiple women’s health issues and Brazil’s current stance on them. The main issue that was brought up during the outbreak was Brazil’s strict and limited access to abortion. This is a reflection of their cultural values as a country and the influence that their culture had on the response to this epidemic. The other cultural issue that was important to address was that lower income women were disproportionally affected by this outbreak and were not given significant enough help to deal with it. In a country that already has a very stratified socioeconomic structure and an upper and lower class that are extremely separated, this outbreak served to highlight this division. From a public health standpoint this outbreak was also very significant as it highlighted the issues with global epidemic responses not being tailored to suit the needs and issues of specific countries. Epidemics will continue to occur for as long as the human race is living and it is important that public health officials learn how to make the responses better.
Aiken, Abigail RA, et al. “Requests for abortion in Latin America related to concern about Zika virus exposure.” New England Journal of Medicine 375.4 (2016): 396-398.
Brasil, Patrícia, et al. “Zika virus infection in pregnant women in Rio de Janeiro.” New England Journal of Medicine 375.24 (2016): 2321-2334.
Harris, Lisa H., Neil S. Silverman, and Mary Faith Marshall. “The paradigm of the paradox: women, pregnant women, and the unequal burdens of the Zika virus pandemic.” The American Journal of Bioethics 16.5 (2016): 1-4.
Scutti, Susan. “Fewer Babies Were Born in Brazil amid Zika Outbreak.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 May 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/05/29/health/zika-brazil-births-study/index.html.