Nivi Sukumar
Commentary
Tim Shirley
Mercury Staff

Women in Latin American countries told to abstain from pregnancy without access to contraception or reproductive education

The Zika virus is sweeping across our planet and it has quickly become the cover story of every newspaper within Central and South America. Even though the symptoms of the virus are relatively minor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that there has been a distinct increase in newborn babies born with microcephaly in Brazil where the Zika virus is centralized. Shockingly, this simple virus that has existed for 70 years has been declared a global epidemic by the World Health Organization.

Latin American countries are desperately scrambling to instill basic health practices to curb the impending long-term effects of the epidemic. The Minister of Health in El Salvador stated that women should abstain from pregnancy until the year 2018. However, endorsing such a burdensome recommendation is entirely unfair because women in these Latin American countries have little or no access to reproductive education and contraception.

According to the CDC, the symptoms of the Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis — or red eyes — which all last for a week. No one has ever died from a Zika virus infection.  However, microcephaly — a disease in which a newborn’s head is much smaller than expected — can cause more serious repercussions. Microcephaly runs on a spectrum where mild cases have almost no side effects, while in more serious cases, the baby suffers from an underdeveloped brain, causing seizures, developmental delays, feeding problems, hearing and vision loss and a varied amount of intellectual disability.

Seema Yasmin, a public health professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Sciences and journalis for The Dallas Morning News, said it is important to find the truth about the link between Zika and microcephaly.

“We haven’t got any scientific evidence right now that the Zika virus causes microcephaly,” she said. “All we know is that an outbreak of the Zika virus is going on in Brazil and, at the same time, officials are reporting that there might be an increase in the number of babies with a birth defect.”

Unfortunately, governments in South America are still clamoring for women to ward off pregnancy — even when contraception and sex education aren’t readily available.

“The majority of pregnancies in any place are not planned to begin with, and also we know women in those countries don’t have access to contraception,” Yasmin said. “They can’t make decisions about their reproductive health.”

So the next question is, what measures can these women take to prevent their unplanned pregnancies? They could obviously be easily avoided through emergency contraceptive pills. However, access to these emergency contraceptives is minimal at most due to the culture.

“In many of the Latin American cultures, religion is a huge influence,” said global health professor Jillian Duquaine-Watson. “In a cultural context where Catholicism plays such a huge role in Christianity, people have complicated feelings about birth control, so it’s a difficult proposition to make.”

In El Salvador, there is an abortion ban with extremely serious consequences for those women who try to obtain one, with prison sentences up to 40 years for those convicted.

Women in these countries have almost no access to any form of contraception, and they are not aware of the benefits of contraception. On top of that, abortion is illegal. So how exactly are women supposed to avoid pregnancy for two years?

The government’s request for abstinence from pregnancy is utterly ridiculous with the lack of resources present in these Latin American countries. Furthermore, it must be understood that women alone cannot resolve this issue. This epidemic must be tackled more effectively without transferring the entire burden on women.

The Zika virus can almost be called a blessing in disguise because it has shed some light on the underlying public health issues that these Latin American countries are facing. Obviously, the virus has taken a toll on healthcare systems globally, but it has definitely unlocked some doors.

The Minister of Health in El Salvador should not have asked for chastity as the first line of defense against the upcoming unrest this virus may cause because it is not feasible, nor is it considerate.  Culture is a valuable foundation for growth, so it cannot be ignored in these countries. Better reproductive education and access to contraception throughout these nations may help alleviate some of the more serious consequences of the Zika virus.