“It seems they are facing death row, or some kind of concentration camp,” said Dr. Adriana Melo. An obstetrician in northeastern Brazil, she was the first doctor to make the connection between the Zika virus and the devastating birth defect microcephaly. At the end of last year, she began seeing one pregnant woman after another with consistent ultrasounds: they had fetuses with small heads and malformed brains. The other constant was their desperation; the women had limited resources and didn’t know where to turn.
Several months later, Dr. Melo and others in Brazil are still grappling with the rapid spread of the Zika virus. The country has 6,480 suspected cases, the highest number in the world. Evidence of the virus’ link to microcephaly and other damaging neurological effects grows every day. What’s also becoming clear is the dire state of women’s reproductive health in Brazil; poorer women, especially, have little-to-no access to the contraception, safe abortion, and other health information and services that would protect them.
While the response of Brazil’s public health system has been weak, women’s groups are trying to fill the void. Our partners in Brazil are helping communities deal with the virus and pushing for improved health services. Last month, IWHC raised nearly $60,000 to provide the organizations Grupo Curumim and Anis with immediate funds for this work. They are using these resources to raise awareness through a communications campaign, providing much needed information and education and dispelling the many myths that exist about the virus. They are hosting formal education sessions and workshops and also initiating smaller scale “conversation circles” to get people talking and to share accurate information.
They are also actively advocating for their government to make contraception more affordable and working with local health providers to ensure they counsel women and girls on Zika and provide them with a range of contraceptive methods.
Right now abortion is highly restricted in Brazil, only permitted in certain limited circumstances, which means that many women who want to terminate their pregnancies end up having unsafe abortions, performed by unskilled and ill-equipped providers. Our partners are working to make abortion legal and safe.
They are also calling for the government to provide much-needed support for women and families who have infants with microcephaly. Parents who have infants with microcephaly are left to fend for themselves, even though many of them can’t work because their infants require special, full-time care.
Zika has profound effects, and of course, the virus won’t be confined to Latin America. It is expected to travel north in the summer months as the weather warms up. Earlier this week, the CDC warned that the virus’ impact in the United States could be worse than previously thought. The mosquito which transmits the virus, aedes aegypti, is present in 30 states. And the virus can be transmitted sexually, which furthers its reach.
While there is much cause for concern, there is also a lot that we can do. Zika underscores how critical it is that women and girls have access to sexual and reproductive health services. And the one silver lining of the crisis may be that Zika will finally force governments to prioritize women’s health and to expand the care they offer. IWHC will continue to work with and support our partners in Brazil who are struggling with this dangerous virus and continue to advocate for women’s and girls’ rights to lead safe and healthy lives.
“Science doesn’t have all the answers yet,” said Sinara Gumieri, who works with Anis. “But we do know about rights and protecting rights—so we have to do that.”
Photo: Sanofi Pasteur/Marizilda Cruppe