As the Zika virus rapidly spreads through the Americas, we have to be aware of its effects, as well as preventative measures and treatments. What folks are not discussing is that it is an inherently feminist issue.
What separates the Zika virus from other epidemics is that it affects pregnant women so profundly. Zika has no treatment or vaccine — scientists thought it was benign until they began seeing incredibly high rates of microcephaly, a severe neurological birth defect, in regions where Zika contagion is high.
Microcephaly and severe microcephaly are more than just the cosmetic issue. Often, affected babies’ brains don’t develop properly during the pregnancy. Babies born with this issue can suffer seizures, delayed speech, intellectual disabilities, immobility, hearing and vision loss, and many other issues. It can also be life-threatening. Because of the nature of the issue, those with microcephaly and severe microcephaly are beholden to medical treatment throughout their lives.
Zika is a feminist issue because people with uteruses are the ones having and raising the babies — regardless of whether their partners decide to stick around. Both they and their children are the ones who shoulder the financial burden when the economic structure set up to help those with disabilities and those in need continually fails. With hostile abortion laws being set up in many different states, women are losing the autonomy over their bodies and their decisions.
It doesn’t stop at pregnant women. The Zika virus is sexually transmitted. You can get Zika by having PIV unprotected sex with someone who has traveled to these areas.
Even with current knowledge of the virus, most people who get infected simply will not know. Signs of infection include a rash, red eyes, fever or joint pain. For those with chronic pain or allergies, it’s easy to dismiss these warning signs as just another symptom of their current issues. Even if they see a doctor, doctors can’t do much more than suggest the patient stay hydrated and take over-the-counter painkillers to dull the ache.
From the flavivirus family, Zika’s siblings are the Dengue, Yellow fever, and West Nile Virus, none of which are benign. The Zika virus gets its name from the forest in Uganda which it was discovered in 1947. It slipped under the noses of scientists because of its mild, flu-like symptoms. No one was really studying its long-term effects. Up to 80 percent of those with the Zika virus simply showed no symptoms at all, making it incredibly difficult to follow. It was thought that those who were infected at a young age simply developed an immunity and that was that.
Because Zika is spread by a specific type of tropical mosquito, the aedes, the disease is less common north of the equator. Meanwhile, things seemed to stabilize in Africa, but in 2007 the disease spread to the distant southwestern Pacific archipelago nation of Yap, infecting a whopping 75 percent of the population. No one died, just a bunch of people with flu-like symptoms. Seemed pretty safe.
However, Brazil noticed an alarming rate of microcephaly (babies born with very small heads) in November 2015, a year after Zika first appeared in South America. The number of affected newborns was around 4,000, up from the usual rate of around 150 babies per year. That’s 150 babies in a population of 200.4 billion people. While 4,000 may not sound like a huge around in comparison to billions of folks, that is a significant jump in a small amount of time.
Health officials are now advising women who are pregnant or soon planning to become pregnant (and their partners) to avoid the 26 countries where Zika is most active, mostly in South America and Africa, until there is a working vaccine and treatment.
Meanwhile, those living in Zika-heavy regions are told to do what they can to avoid mosquito bites.
Have you ever tried to avoid mosquito bites in hot weather? You’re pretty much guaranteed to get a few, no matter how hard you try to prevent them. While the aedes mosquito isn’t likely to leave its equatorial stomping grounds, scientists are worried that Zika will spread in different ways or mutate into something worse. Because viruses mutate and humans travel, it is likely that there will be more cases of Zika affecting births in the U.S. And with Brazil hosting the Olympics, that’s even more likely. (Some scientists think Zika was brought to Brazil by travelers to the World Cup tournament. If that is the case, we already have proof that it can and will travel with humans to other warm climates.)
People living in the Southern states, Hawaii and Puerto Rico are most likely to be at the highest risk in North America, as the virus has already moved into the Caribbean and Mexico. So far, the few cases of Zika in the U.S. have been traced to international travel, but Florida is both warm enough and proximal to the Caribbean, making it a likely incubator of the virus.
The sky is not falling and we are not all going to die. However, knowing how it is contracted, where the virus is moving from and ways to protect yourself while scientists rush for a vaccine can be tools to protect yourself.