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Besides worries about the Zika virus as a health care issue, the highly indicated connection between the disease and birth defects is raising countless issues. The Zika links to microcephaly, babies with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains, is touching on the politics of abortion, blood donation, disability and women’s rights in many countries.
An explosion of abnormalities observed in fetuses could lead to a desire for abortions. However, they are illegal in many of the countries that are seeing growing numbers of people ill with Zika. Additionally, the desire to abort a fetus for fear that it will have physical disabilities, which vary greatly in cases of microcephaly from mild to severe, raises ethical issues.
Reminiscent of the early days of AIDS, new things are being discovered almost daily about Zika, even though the virus has been around since the 1940s. The virus is basically harmless, and 80 percent of those was catch it have no symptoms. However, there is an uptick in cases of Guillain-Barre, a syndrome that can bring on rapid muscle weakness and even paralysis, in regions affected by Zika. Additionally, the first sexually transmitted case was confirmed in the U.S. this week (The disease was previously known to be mosquito-borne.) It turns out that the virus can be transmitted in semen, saliva and other bodily fluids.
In response, the American Red Cross does not want blood donations from people who have traveled to Latin America or the Caribbean within the past 28 days. Blood suppliers currently test donations for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis, parasites that cause malaria and for West Nile virus. But, there has not been a need to test for Zika until now, nor is there an easy way.
The Abortion Issue
Many of the countries that are battling Zika have urged women to put off having children while the epidemic continues. They should also appeal to men and make birth control more readily available. El Salvador, for example, advised women to not get pregnant until 2018. But, contraception there is reportedly not easy to access and difficult to afford. Complicating matters, abortion is illegal in El Salvador.
The virus outbreak has many Latin American countries re-examining their strict abortion laws. Even in the U.S., there are issues in many states with access to abortions.
Complicating matters is the fact that microcephaly cannot be detected in a fetus until well into the second trimester of a pregnancy. At the start of the second trimester, ultrasounds can detect the absence of a brain, anencephaly, but not the size of it. Many of the women in Brazil who have given birth to babies with microcephaly had normal ultrasounds for most of their pregnancy.
Even in the U.S., only 1 percent of abortions are performed in the second trimester. Typically, they are because of a threat to the mother’s life, but some are due to fetal abnormalities.
Disability rights advocates would argue that a disabled child has the right to exist, so abortions solely because the child will not be perfect are unethical. Many recognize that it is not desirable, given an option, to have a child with a disability. However, not all babies with microcephaly are disabled.
As health officials scramble to find ways to deal with the Zika epidemic as it touches more people throughout the Americas, the politics and debates about the Women’s, Abortion and Disability Rights issues will increase. One thing is clear, there are no easy answers to the ongoing worldwide health crisis.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
World Health Organization: Latest Zika situation report
Dallas Morning News: Christina Cauterucci: Why aren’t governments telling men to prevent Zika?
Global Post: Experts worry Zika today may cause more birth defect cases later
NBC News: Zika Scare Reopens Abortion Debate in Brazil
USA Today: U.S. Red Cross: Wait 28 days to donate blood after visiting Zika areas
Photo Courtesy of TipsTimes.com/Pregnancy Flickr Page – Creative Commons License