February 9, 2016
Environmental public health issues don’t often have a long shelf-life in American media. Only a handful grace the front page or receive more than a few minutes of airtime. Most get mentioned then fall off the radar. Out of sight and out of mind. This winter has been different. Our screens have two contenders on the center stage of newsreels: the deplorable water contamination in Flint, MI, and the Zika virus.
Both are leaving devastated communities in their wakes without any decent answers on how to move forward. In Flint, there could be drastic policies changes in Americans evaluate water safety and how to respond faster when communities face similar tragedies in the future. However, this does not address the damage afflicted upon Flint.
Without any treatment options, Zika virus poses different challenges and hits a trifecta of delicate topics: poor communities, reproductive rights, and climate change.
The Zika virus is running rampant in urban, impoverished areas that are facing the hardships of drought. Without the luxuries of staying indoors with air conditioners and screened windows, many cannot avoid the mosquitos that thrive in these regions.
The Zika virus has been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), and 4 million may be infected by the end of the year. The most tragic result of the Zika virus is the drastic rise in infants born with microcephaly, which includes smaller head sizes, developmental and intellectual disabilities, seizures, as well as hearing and vision problems.
Many mothers were unaware of why their newborns looked different and assumed it may be a condition the babies will grow out of. The confirmation of microcephaly may take months, which complicates the understanding of the virus that is already a foreign concept to these new mothers.
Detection of the Zika virus is not always a viable option as tests are not widely available. Plus, the virus may not show up for a week after initial infection. With only one in five people with the Zika virus showing symptoms, many expectant mothers did not know or do not know for sure if they have been exposed to the virus.
Though travel and trade are not restricted, there are still economic concerns as travel to these regions may taper due to the virus. Today, the United States Olympic Committee suggested if any U.S. athletes and staff are concerned about the Zika virus, they should consider not going to the games in Rio de Janiero this summer.
Women who contract the virus during early pregnancy seem to have a higher risk of microcephaly. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention discourages American women of childbearing age from traveling to South America and the Carribean unless birth control is used consistently. Many affected countries are recommending women postpone their pregnancies until 2018.
However, planned pregnancy is not always an option in these areas, and birth control options are far from universally available to these women. Nearly all of the countries in South and Central America prohibit abortions. El Salvador aggressively investigates and incarcerates women who have had miscarriages and stillbirths when they are incorrectly perceived as illegal abortions.
In Brazil, 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been linked to Zika since late October. Pregnant women in areas with the Zika virus face few options and have few resources if their babies are born with microcephaly. Reproductive right advocates are urging governments to reassess their abortion policies warning that the devastating outbreak of the Zika virus may result in many deaths due to unsafe abortions.
Speculations of how climate change will make the outbreak of the Zika virus worse are running rampant. Climate change is linked to the severity of the outbreak. WHO believes the strong El Niño is increasing the range of the mosquitoes.
The mosquito behind this outbreak is the aedes aegypti. The current trajectory of climate change does suggest that these mosquitoes will increase exposure to the diseases it carries by 8-12% over the next fifty years. Though this may not involve the Zika virus, it does provide a bleak glimpse into our future of tropical diseases migrating northward. The aedes aegypti mosquito does exist in the continental U.S. and there are concerns that the Zika virus will make its way farther into North America. While we’re in the dead of winter, time will only tell.
The Zika virus is a perfect storm of worst-case scenarios. The outbreak is forcing conversations about these sensitive issues that will not have immediate solutions. The impediments faced by those affected by the Zika virus highlight how climate change is already afflicting the underprivileged during a time that should be joyous.
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