While the mosquito-borne virus continues to threaten Latin American populations, in its wake, Zika has also revealed tensions between religious beliefs and healthcare.
“To doctors in Recife, whatever was striking the babies seemed to have fallen like a bolt from the blue,” wrote Donald Mcneil, a columnist from The New York Times, with regards to the epidemic of the Zika virus in Latin America.
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that has been said to resemble other illnesses such as Dengue Fever and Chikungunya. However, Zika seems to have blindsided doctors of Central America. Before the epidemic spread to many countries, not much was known about this sneaky virus. But, as more and more cases began to pop up in countries such as Brazil, it has severely alarmed doctors, particularly OB/GYN professionals.
Patients who have been diagnosed with Zika have shown symptoms of a flat, pinkish rash, in addition to having bloodshot eyes, a fever, joint pain and headaches – none of which seem particularly life threatening. So why does this virus have doctors worrying? The unsettling coincidence that has occurred, especially within Brazil, is that an alarming number of newborn babies whose mothers have Zika have shown signs of microcephaly, an infantile condition leading to an abnormally small head associated with incomplete brain development.
When increasing number of microcephalic babies began to stream into hospitals in major cities in Brazil, researchers and physicians were led to believe that there was a clear link between Zika and birth defects. In the panic, Brazil’s official medical suggestion to all women has been: do not get pregnant.
What may seem like a benign advisory actually unveils some controversial issues within Latin American countries. A number of countries in Central America are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Zika virus could shine a spotlight on Brazil and other countries’ lack of education and resources for contraception due to their deeply convicted religious foundations.
John Paris, a bioethicist and Catholic Priest at Boston College, claimed that people are “going to have to really thread a fine theological needle,” if they continue to advise women not to get pregnant. Although recent remarks by Pope Francis allude to an evolving stance on contraception, the Catholic Church is officially opposed to artificially preventing unwanted pregnancy. As Latin American countries warn women to not get pregnant for the next two years due to the scares of the Zika virus, the Catholic Church has kept completely silent. This lack of an opinion on a crucial matter creates quite the stalemate, particularly in a region where Catholicism yields such an authority.
The tensions between the Zika virus and religious beliefs lead into another controversy over advising against pregnancy in the near future: not all women have access to reproductive healthcare. Due to the religious affiliations many Latin American countries still have, abortions are very tightly restricted. This makes it much more difficult to get an abortion, rendering it even more difficult for poor women who have little or no access to reproductive healthcare. Not to mention, in Brazil, it is even illegal for a woman to abort a fetus that will most likely be microcephalic.
To make matters worse, the majority of women who have contracted Zika live in low-income neighborhoods in mosquito-ridden areas, with crowded housing and minimal health care. Essentially, these women (and their potential offspring) don’t stand a chance.
Clearly, an element of institutional sexism in Latin American countries has been brought to public attention. Since it is extremely difficult for women to get an abortion in certain countries in Central America, they will seek ways to illegally abort a fetus, due to the dangerous risks of the Zika virus, and thus, ultimately put themselves at greater risk for these illegal methods.
How can the government advise against pregnancy and not grant adequate reproductive healthcare to all women? There is no doubt that people will be asking this question if the Zika virus continues to spread, and the link between the virus and birth defects grows more evidentiary-backed. Needless to say, the spotlight has definitely turned to the Brazilian government to take action with the social inequality that manifests itself through the Zika virus.
By: Mandi Paine ’18