Pregnant woman

Zika and Reproductive Rights

The Zika epidemic has revealed two truths about health care in Latin America. Decades of cost-cutting have undermined public health systems, and limited reproductive rights have left women dangerously vulnerable to the terrifying consequences of the virus.

NEW YORK – Mosquitoes know no boundaries, and neither does fear. As public-health experts grapple with the Zika virus, panic continues to spread around the world. Yet the crisis has brought to light two important truths.

The first revelation is how badly degraded public health systems have become, across Latin America and beyond. This did not happen by chance. In large part, it is the result of pressure on developing countries by concessionary lenders, such as the International Monetary Fund, to cut social sector expenses, including health spending, beginning in 1980. In Brazil and elsewhere, state authorities could have deployed well-known and cost-effective measures to control mosquito-borne diseases, but they did not. Their most affected citizens, who tend to be poor, have been forced to live with the consequences.

Second, the Zika epidemic has revealed, with particular poignancy, another dire threat to public health: the denial of women’s reproductive rights. Governments are shirking their responsibility in this regard too, often in a grotesque manner. The reported spike in cases of microcephaly – a birth defect – among infants in Zika-affected areas led the governments of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and El Salvador to warn their female citizens “not to become pregnant.”

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