November 3, 2016
Written by Shena Cavallo
Photo by AP/Felipe Dana
The post originally appeared in Wired.
Shena Cavallo, a program officer for the International Women’s Health Coalition, recently travelled to the epicenter of the Zika epidemic in northeastern Brazil. There, she discovered that women’s health and rights are the burning issues of the day.
I had stocked up on mosquito repellant; I was travelling to Pernambuco State in Brazil’s northeast, and I wanted to be prepared. Pernambuco State is one of the regions hardest hit by Zika and also has the country’s highest number of recorded cases of microcephaly, the rare neurological disorder caused by the Zika virus. There are nearly 400 confirmed cases of microcephaly in the state and nearly 10,000 estimated cases throughout the region. The Zika virus and its related health complications have hit lower-income, predominantly Afro-Brazilian communities, especially hard.
As I took what may have been excessive precautions to prepare for my travels, I was reminded not to take the options I had for granted. Paula Viana, the co-coordinator of the local organization, Grupo Curumim, had told me earlier, “The government has been promising people free mosquito repellent for months. We’re still waiting.”
During my trip, I also became increasingly aware that, while mosquito control efforts are essential to stopping Zika, they are not the only front of protection. If women had more information on sexual and reproductive health and better access to these same health services, they could protect themselves and lessen the impact of Zika. Poorer women in Brazil still lack access to contraception and safe abortion, for example, greatly exacerbating the epidemic and contributing to women’s sense of uncertainty and fear.