Tag Archives: Zika

All creatures great and small



grub’s up

My five-(“and a half! and a half!”) year-old daughter will tell you: the only living thing it’s ok to squash is the mosquito.

(however, now that she is into wildlife documentaries, questions are starting to be asked about whether one can also squish a black widow spider in cold blood, in the interests of self-preservation).

Mosquitoes – the insect incarnation of La Poste – deserve whatever bloody end they get (and indeed, if it is bloody, then it is even more well-deserved, since that’s your blood on the wall).

Urgh. Mosquitos. They serve no positive purpose, unless you have a sado-masochistic penchant for that nails-down-blackboard whine, issuing seemingly from inside your eardrum, startling you from your sleep; or for the ensuing, desperate game of “where is it? where is it?” as you turn the light on and blink, red-eyed, at the expanse of wall around you.

Yes: the mosquito; the ultimate bad one-night stand.


That kind of Night Nurse

But not only do they leave you sleep-deprived and somewhat uglier, with those maddeningly itchy bites: they also delight in injecting you with some of the world’s deadliest diseases.  Through malaria, dengue, yellow fever or the superbly-named chikungunya, mosquitoes kill 725,000 human beings a year (definitely more than that black widow spider).

And – just when you thought it was safe to come out from under the bed net – now there’s another one for the list.

I first heard of Zika a few months ago.  I admit I initially thought it was a new fitness craze: next-level Zumba. But no. Zika is a virus.  And not some new-fad-virus, thank you very much:  Zika is actually a sextogenerian, first identified in 1947 in Uganda.

Despite its comic-strip baddie name, Zika is actually fairly harmless.  You get a temperature, a red rash, some aches and pains. Symptoms fade within a few days.  Aside from the few occasions where Zika has been associated with the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, it isn’t anything to worry unduly about.

Unless, that is, you happen to be pregnant.

Because Zika is tentatively linked to a neonatal malformation known as microcephaly, or babies born with unusually small heads.  This rare condition affects one birth in a thousand, but since autumn last year Latin America – and particularly Brazil – has seen a surge of cases in parallel to the Zika epidemic.



Although experts are still wary about making a conclusive link between Zika and microcephaly, the peak in suspected cases has lead to governments and the World Health Organisation proactively recommending measures to prevent being bitten, such as removing water sources where mosquitoes commonly breed; sleeping under bednets, or donning long sleeved/full-leg clothing (joyful, in hot countries).

Oh, and not getting pregnant in the first place.

Simple, right?

Or not, since avoiding pregnancy requires one of two things: abstinence (never overly popular) or contraception.

The latter, on the face of it, is easier. Brazil scores fairly well on overall access to contraception (measured by the % of women with “unmet need“).  But there is a difference in contraceptive access between socioeconomic classes or urban/rural locations. Couple that with a peak of Zika infections in the less-wealthy north-east of Brazil (with a hotspot in the slums of Recife) and you have a situation disproportionately affecting women from poorer backgrounds: uninformed about the risks of falling pregnant, or
unable to avoid pregnancy through poor or unreliable birth control methods.


who you gunna call?

So as rousing as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s
declaration of war on mosquitoes was (including limited edition t-shirt),  what about ensuring women have the access they need to contraception?

Hear hear! said the Pope.

Yes, yes, the Pope. I kid you not: reversing the Vatican’s position on contraception in between a Zumba lesson and midnight mass.  Is the Catholic church finally moving with the times?

Alas, not quite.  Because what Pope Francis actually said was:

Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime (…) an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. (…) avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil (…) I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

So no: no dramatic departure from teachings of old (the Pope is indeed a catholic). Au contraire, not falling pregnant every time your body is biologically capable of it is still evil, apparently, just a tad less evil, than abortion.

Not that Catholics appear to pay much attention. A 2014 survey showed that 78% of Catholics worldwide support the use of modern contraception, and even 65% are in favour of abortion in some cases.

So you may legitimately ask: if Catholic wo/men do not take the humanae vitae literally, what does it matter what the Pope says or doesn’t say?

Well, it does matter. For two reasons:

  1. such rhetoric entirely misses the point of – and therefore diverts attention from – access to reliable and low-cost birth control. Without which the question of whether you should or should not be using it is moot; and
  2. labelling women who try to prevent or put an end to unwanted pregnancy as “evil” (as opposed to addressing unmet need – especially for poor women) – is, frankly, criminal.

Criminal, yes: and yet those who are considered the criminals are the women themselves. Abortion is restricted or illegal in many Latin America countries, including in Brazil, hotspot of the Zika epidemic.  If you abort (apart from to save the mother’s life; in the case of anencephaly (absence of a portion of the brain or skull); or as a result of rape) you risk up to 3 years’ imprisonment.

Oh – and your life.

In Brazil, there are an estimated 850,000 illegal abortions per year, resulting in around 200,000 women requiring treatment for, let’s say, injecting corrosive substances into the uterus in a desperate attempt to abort alone.

And with the Zika virus, these numbers are on the rise. Which is why the resistance to strict abortion laws is increasingly criticised, and not only from traditional quarters.  Jon O’Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, says that

progressive Catholic theologians argue that abortion can be justified under a range of situations (…) traditional Catholic teaching about conscience gives women the the final moral authority over the abortion decision

Moral authority or not: the fact of the matter is this. If a woman falls pregnant, and the pregnancy is unwanted, she may well take matters (and her life) into her own hands. This is especially true faced with the possibility of a baby born with microcephaly.

Ignoring that reality, and badging abortion as an “absolute evil”, is therefore not only immoral, but pointless.  If the Pope really is as progressive as he would have us believe, then it is time he moved the Catholic church away from wielding women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights as a moral pulpit, and used his considerable influence to make every pregnancy wanted, and every childbirth safe.

Simply: the word evil has no place in this debate. Unless, of course, we’re back to talking about the mosquito.

I think the jury might still be out on the black widow spider, though.