Zika is a virus transmitted by the same mosquito that transmits Dengue, with mild to moderate symptoms, but might be linked to microencephaly if a woman is infected during pregnancy. A recent Washington Post headline read: ”As Zika virus spreads, El Salvador asks women not to get pregnant until 2018.” Once again, women are given the sole responsibility for a situation that needs to involve men if there is to be a solution that would prevent a Zika pregnancy epidemic. Pregnant women who contract the Zika virus run the risk of giving birth to a child with microencephaly – children born with abnormally small heads who may suffer brain damage as well. Morena Herrera, President of the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, stated that “preventing pregnancies in situations of risk…isn’t a bad option, but it’s not enough. We don’t think it is taking into account the realities of women in El Salvador.” Nor does it hold men responsible. Morena speaks from her experience of women in El Salvador where too many women are victims of violence and resulting rape, where women are frequently in submissive relationships with little control over their bodies.
The Government is concerned because an epidemic of children with microencephaly would be a health care crisis of huge proportions. However, their initial response was to tell women not to get pregnant - this in a country where church authorities preach against birth control of any kind. Women’s reproductive rights are monitored and mandated by government and church. Women have been sentenced to years in prison, accused of having an abortion, even when in many cases a miscarriage - difficult to prove - had occurred. Will fear of the Zika virus lead some to consider abortions? What will happen should there be outbreak of children born with microcephaly? How will an impoverished country like El Salvador provide needed medical services for these children? How will poor families afford the cost of treatment?
The Washington Post reports that El Salvador already has more than 5,000 possible cases of the Zika virus infection from 2015 to the present day. The BBC reports that 100 pregnant Salvadoran women are currently being monitored for the virus.
Solutions are few and a vaccine non-existent. At present, health workers are endangered as they go into gang controlled neighborhoods to disinfect pools of standing water or distribute health information. Access to running water is non-existent for most of the country which relies on small reservoirs in the homes for everything except drinking water. These reservoirs of stagnant clean water are a fertile breeding ground for the mosquito that carries the Zika virus.
Advice from Deputy of Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza that “women refrain from getting pregnant before 2018” is inadequate even if he revises that warning to read, “that women and men refrain from bringing about any pregnancy before 2018.” The potential for severe health crisis is looming, but a more thoughtful and in-depth approach is needed. "Just saying no" to pregnancies for 2 years will not address the issue.
Initial SEW trainings emphasize personal development including human and legal rights, reproductive health and business education. Information about the Zika virus, its implication for pregnancy and safety measures like spraying and treating standing water sources equip the women of SEW to deal with safeguarding their own and their family’s health.