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
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
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.