Brazil recently declared the Zika emergency over, but for those living in the most affected and at-risk areas, the virus is a constant threat. Paula Viana, the Coordinator for local organization Grupo Curumim, doesn’t have much faith in the government’s assessment: “If you consider how absent the Brazilian state has been regarding women’s and girls’ reproductive health and rights, as well as their failure to support women with babies born with Zika Syndrome, this is a worrying development.”
Grupo Curumim, a long-time IWHC partner based in Recife, in hard-hit northeastern Brazil, has been working for the past year to educate communities, health providers, and activists about the risk of Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases. While the symptoms of Zika are often mild, the implications for pregnant women are far more severe. Fetuses infected with the virus can develop “congenital Zika syndrome,” a series of birth defects including microcephaly—underdevelopment of the brain—as well as vision and hearing problems. Most recently, Curumim has reached out to female employees of local fisheries to inform the women about the associated risks of the Zika virus and ways to prevent infection.
In response to the epidemic, the Brazilian government launched mosquito eradication programs in 2016, but activists say that the focus has been almost entirely on the mosquito, and not on the people most likely to be infected. These efforts also failed to address long standing inequalities, and the burden of prevention was placed almost entirely on women and girls. In the northeast of the country, poor sanitation, irregular access to water, and the region’s tropical climate are conducive to the spread of the virus, which is transmitted sexually as well. Meanwhile, Brazil’s ultra-conservative government continues to chip away at programs and policies on sexual and reproductive health so women and girls who want to delay pregnancy often lack the necessary information and means to do so.
The Zika crisis coincided with Brazil’s recent political and economic turmoil and the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Rather than focusing on policies and programs to address long-standing inequalities, her successor, President Michel Temer, prioritized harsh austerity measures, including freezing public spending on health and education for the next 20 years. This is extremely worrying for those who have babies with congenital Zika syndrome. The existing meager social benefits don’t make up for the fact that many mothers and caregivers have had to give up working outside the home to care for these babies.
In such a challenging context, local organizations are trying various strategies to change harmful policies. Curumim is advocating with local policymakers for greater access to long-acting contraception, such as IUDs, which many women have been demanding in light of the epidemic.
In August 2016, the Brazilian National Association of Public Defenders (ANADEP), in coordination with Anis-Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, another IWHC grantee partner, filed a petition before the Brazilian Supreme Court demanding the protection of women, families, and children affected by Zika. In addition to calling for information, contraception, and access to legal abortion in light of the virus, the petition also calls for expanded social benefits for families with children who have congenital Zika syndrome.
It’s clear the impact of Zika lives on. As Debora Diniz, IWHC Vice Chair and lead researcher at ANIS, recently said, “Brazil’s declaration of an end to the Zika emergency sends a message that there is no more urgency in protecting these women and children. But the risk did not end; we only forgot about these women again.”