Author: Sara Habibipour
What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus that was first discovered in Uganda in 1947 in a Rhesus macaque monkey. Since then, there’s been sporadic cases throughout Africa and Asia. But, more recently, cases have been identified throughout the Americas, particularly characterized by the 2015-16 outbreak in Brazil.
During this outbreak, doctors began to notice an association between Zika virus infection and microcephaly (smaller than normal head size, particularly affecting fetuses in pregnant people) and Guillain-Barre syndrome (when the immune system attacks the nerves). Scientists were also able to confirm that the Zika virus was being transmitted through Aedes mosquitoes, which bite mostly during the day. These mosquitoes also transmit dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever.
For most people who contract the Zika virus, there are no symptoms. For those who do, it’s typically mild fever and joint pain. However, more serious complications arise for those who are pregnant; Zika can cause microcephaly, eye abnormalities, high muscle tone, and hearing loss. The risk of congenital malformations is unknown, but an estimated 5-15% of infants born to those infected with Zika have complications. Additionally, it increases the risk of miscarriage and can be spread through sexual contact. There is no known treatment or vaccine for the Zika virus.
Microcephaly in an infant
Reasons Why it Highlights Injustices in Global Health
Discrimination, economic inequality, and poverty affect both the risks and outcomes of Zika. As we saw with the 2015-16 Brazil outbreak, the disease disproportionately impacts women, who, in Brazil, face high rates of sexual violence according to the United Nations. Additionally, due to socioeconomic and political barriers, access to contraception, abortion, and maternal/child healthcare is significantly limited, allowing Zika to have its illest effects on both mothers and their children.
In general, mosquito-borne diseases disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable, as the government in these regions fail to ensure proper running water, plumbing, drainage systems, etc. which leads to a favorable environment for mosquitoes as water stagnates. Hot temperatures in the absence of air conditioning often leads people to open their windows. Governments may provide window screens, but they may be unavailable, unaffordable, not widely accepted, or have holes rendering them ineffective. Governments de-prioritize vector control programs in their budgets, especially during periods of economic and political instability. All of these factors together create a perfect storm for the Zika virus to thrive.
Public health officials recommend paying more attention to women’s rights in order to combat such diseases. When governments do not support maternal care, this leads to dangerous environments and outcomes for both the mother and the child. In the case of Zika, this is also particularly dangerous when governments do not have adequate disability support systems in place.
For regions with active transmission of the Zika virus, it’s vital that all people with the Zika virus infection and their sexual partners (especially pregnant people) receive all information possible about the risks of transmission and the potential outcomes for their children (if pregnant). This requires the collaboration of global health organizations, such as the WHO, with local governments and doctors in order to spread accurate information.