Zika looms on the Rio Olympics, but sheds light on an even larger issue – women’s rights

By Alexandra DeMatos

Summer 2016 – Communications Intern

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Tomorrow the 2016 Summer Olympics will begin in Rio, Brazil. The country will be the host to countless visitors and the world’s best athletes – if they choose to attend. Many have decided to opt out of this summer’s Olympics due to the looming threat of the Zika virus throughout South America, which is extremely prevalent in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, home of the Olympics, is the area that is the most plagued with the virus.

In late April, Brazil released a report that analyzed the statistics of the Zika virus all throughout Brazil, with Rio housing the worst concentration of Zika cases in the country – more than 1 in 4 of the 90,000 reported cases in the first quarter of the year. With 157 per 100,000 people in Rio being infected with the virus, Rio has three times the national average. The threat for outsiders and athletes is easily avoidable, but for the poor residents of Rio leaving is not necessarily an option. For women, the threat is even greater.

The Zika virus is most often spread in one of three ways: the bite of an infected mosquito, sex with an infected man or childbirth. While infections in adults often show no symptoms, if a woman is infected while pregnant, there can be severe consequences. Children born from a mother that is infected with the Zika virus may have a serious birth defect known as “microcephaly,” which results in the baby having a smaller head and brain than expected due to improper development, along with seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability, hearing loss, vision problems and so on. As the link between the two became more obvious the government of Brazil shared its words of wisdom: don’t get pregnant.

To many, this piece of advice is incomprehensible. Brazil has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, is extremely lacking in sexual education and lacks contraceptive access, particularly for the poor. Abortion is allowed only in cases of rape, a threat to the mother’s life or in cases of anencephaly (when the fetus is missing parts of the brain). This issue of microcephaly has become so profound that even Pope Francis was swayed into saying that contraceptives would be the “lesser evil” in the fight against Zika.

The women who live in “favelas,” referred to as “impoverished or overcrowded areas” by the World Health Organization (WHO), are at the greatest risk of having a baby born with microcephaly. One in 5 of the residents in Rio live in favelas, which lack basic sanitation, which Marcelo Firpo of Brazil’s National School of Public Health says is the number one factor behind the spread of the mosquito, Aedes aegypti, which spreads Zika (as well as chikungunya and dengue fever). Unlike favelas, which are often riddled with garbage dumps and raw sewage, the well-off cities and neighborhoods in Brazil have an exponentially lower number of cases of Zika, and little to no cases of microcephaly. Highlighting severe economic disparity in the country and a difference, which can also be contributed to the better health care available to those of better means.

As long as Zika thrives in Brazil, poor women will be disproportionally affected and many women will continue to desperately search out methods of avoiding pregnancy. As the concern over the wellbeing of the athletes and visitors rises, we cannot forget the residents, women in particular, that are being left behind.

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