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: Beyond the Buzz: Media and the Zika Virus

Beyond the Buzz: Media and the Zika Virus

Online Media Specialist

There is a special art to reporting health news. It demands a thorough understanding of the subject, coupled with the ability to break it down into an easily understood, yet interesting, story. If the story is too heavily weighted on one side, the entire narrative can change. 

You've probably seen the media coverage about the Zika virus, and how it has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.).  The virus is spread by mosquitos that causes mild flu-like symptoms. Those affected rarely end up hospitalized. The reason it's now being so widely reported is that Zika has been potentially linked to a birth defect known as microcephaly, a condition that is affecting a growing number of births in South America. The theory that the virus and the condition are linked comes from an alarming increase in birthrates of babies with microcephaly during the same 2015 period when Zika cases were also on the rise in Brazil.

There has been online speculation about whether there will be a Zika epidemic, but there is a deeper story about health equality - How the weight of yet another disease epidemic is falling mainly on the shoulders of women-especially impoverished women.

Take for example the prevention advice given by El Salvador's health minister: "We'd like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they take steps to plan their pregnancies and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next." No similar message has been directed toward men. Nothing about helping women find birth control, men using condoms, or that it takes two to tango. This is perhaps not surprising, as birth control is not socially accepted and is hard to find in most Latin American countries. Latin American women rank among the lowest in the world for contraceptive access and use. Emergency contraception is generally expensive or illegal. The unspoken reality is that it may be not be feasible for women in the affected countries to follow their own government's advice because laws and/or lack of education prevent it.

There have been numerous articles written about the strict abortion laws in South and Central American countries and how the Zika virus may cause more women to seek abortions. More than 760,000 women in South America were hospitalized in 2015 for complications from illegal abortions, and these women face up to three years in jail if caught having one. In a country where pregnancy from rape is common, underreported, and a taboo subject, hospitalizations from botched illegal abortions may increase due to fear of birth defects that may be caused by the Zika virus.

It is a disservice to women in affected areas not to discuss and draw attention to the bigger picture here-decades of mismanaged women's health and underlying cultural and government misogamy toward reproduction and sexual health. Articles that only talk about scientists being baffled or whether U.S. citizens should be worried, direct the public's focus away from the humanitarian issues that touch more lives daily than Zika will in the next decade. We must take every opportunity to build awareness of the fundamental health disparity issues. As we have seen so many times, once the United States gets the all-clear, the media and the public may buzz on to the next possible health crisis.

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The Healthy(ist) blog is a platform to share, learn about, and debate topics related to public and social health, scientific research, health communications, and behavior change.
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