Government responses to the current Zika emergency highlight failures of health policy both in America and abroad
© AP/Felipe Dana
In this Jan. 30, 2016 photo, Solange Ferreira holds Jose Wesley outside their house in Bonito, Pernambuco state, Brazil.
Last month, the World Health Organization declared
the mosquito-borne Zika virus
a "international health emergency." Though the virus doesn't harm most
who get it, recent research suggests that Zika can cause serious damage
to the brains of fetuses and, in rare instances, neurological problems in adults.
Since last spring, more than 20 countries have reported locally acquired cases of Zika. "The level of alarm is extremely high," said
Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, in a speech in Geneva. Such alarmist language about the Zika virus is mostly focused on the implications on pregnant women and their fetuses, specifically on the purported link between the virus and microcephaly, a rare condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains. Despite the fervor and worry, experts say it is too early to tell whether Zika is causing microcephaly in infants. Nonetheless, in response to the increase in Zika cases, the government of El Salvador has advised women
to refrain from becoming pregnant until 2018. Brazil has seen the most Zika cases in Latin America, and recently a leading Brazilian health official recommended that women in the hard-hit northeastern region postpone
pregnancy. U.S. health officials have warned
pregnant Americans to refrain from traveling to Latin American countries.
In additional pregnancy-related worry, on the heels of the WHO's announcement about the Zika explosion, the United States' Centers for Disease Control issued a report finding that three in four American women who plan to get pregnant soon are still drinking alcohol. The report also found that whether women plan to get pregnant or not - an estimated 3.3 million, between the ages of 15 and 44, risk harming a developing fetus with alcohol because they are drinking and having sex without birth control. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said
that "Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant." This is especially important given that, "About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won't know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking."
These are distinct health issues with different causes and impacts. The common threads are the emphasis on pregnancy-related health concerns and solutions that center on behavior-change. The juxtaposition of these scenarios is interesting because of what it exposes about gender and public health — the emphasis on behavior change with a dramatic disregard for the fact that it is growing more and more difficult here in the U.S. and around the world to plan a pregnancy and have control over one's pregnancy outcome — whether it is a healthy childbirth and child, a miscarriage or an abortion.