The Zika epidemic threatens more than just health

Zika is the new epidemic causing panic in Central and South America. It is a virus spread largely by mosquitos, and in rare cases has been contracted through sexual contact. The virus is posing a threat to future generations. Zika, whilst causing rather minor outward symptoms of rash, achy joints and fever etc., poses an even more ominous threat to pregnant women. If a pregnant woman is infected, it can cause deformation of her child’s head as well as the baby’s brain to be underdeveloped.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released an alert suggesting that pregnant women avoid travelling to Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and French Guiana. At the moment there is not treatment or prevention for the virus apart from insect repellents.

International concern has been heightened by the El Salvadorian government issuing a warning to all women to avoid falling pregnant for two years, or at least until some progress towards prevention and treatment has been made. Colombia, Jamaica and Ecuador have released similar statements.

Any suggestion to postpone pregnancy in an entire population will undoubtedly be seen as controversial, but in Catholic countries the idea holds even more weight. The warning endorses the use of contraception, a topic that is ultra-sensitive not only in Catholic countries, but globally. When contraception is banned or severely frowned upon, it heightens the importance of legal abortion. No matter whether someone is pro-life or pro-choice, abortions will always take place, legally or not. This causes  an issue for El Salvador, a country in which abortion has  been illegal under any circumstances since 1998. The complex implications of El Salvador’s statement present how big a problem Zika is becoming in South and Central America, not only medically but also intensifying alreadly heated social topics. Brazil has seen nearly 4,000 babies with microcephaly (abnormally small heads) since October 2015, a figure that rose from fewer than 1,000 in 2014. Despite the extremity of the governments’ warning many are heeding their message suggesting that the reality of the situation there is serious enough to warrant such drastic action.

The virus originated in Africa and spread to Asia, before reaching South America sometime in the last two years. Some believe that a tourist attending the 2014 World Cup unwittingly brought the virus to South America. At first the Brazilian government were not worried by the virus as it seemed less dangerous than dengue fever. Unlike previous epidemics such as the 2002-2003 SARS virus, which was seen as an immediate danger to life, Zika’s menace lies in its threat to future generations. Not only does the virus pose a threat to foetal development, there are also suggestions that it is linked to Guillain-Barré, a rare nerve condition that causes paralysis and ultimately a life on life-support. It has been confirmed that three UK tourists have been diagnosed with the virus since returning home to the UK from several locations in Central and South America. These are the first confirmed cases inside Britain.

Zika is a virus of extremes, on the one hand death and even hospitalisation of a victim is rare, and yet, on the other, it has such devastating effects for unborn babies and thus for the lives of those around them too. The virus’ long-term impact  on population and the formation of society is as yet unknown.

 

 

Image: Katja Schulz @ Flikr

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