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The Injustices of Zika

Outbreaks of communicable diseases in the developing world are bad enough from a health perspective. But they also have serious implications for social justice, as they expose and exacerbate longstanding human-rights crises, including by undermining already-weak public-services provision and deepening existing inequalities.

SOUTHAMPTON – Outbreaks of communicable diseases in the developing world are bad enough from a health perspective. But they also have serious implications for social justice, because they exacerbate longstanding human-rights crises, including by undermining already-weak public-services provision and deepening existing inequalities.

Like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Zika outbreak in Central and South America in 2015 hit vulnerable social groups – women and children, ethnic minorities, and the poor – the hardest. Like yellow fever, dengue, and other diseases, Zika is transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. But, unusually for a mosquito-borne virus, Zika can also be transmitted sexually. Even more unusual, it is associated with neurological and developmental conditions affecting babies: microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Otherwise, its symptoms are often rather mild.

This means that, of the more than 1.5 million people stricken by Zika since the outbreak, the consequences were most worrying for women of child-bearing age, especially those who were already pregnant. Between 2016 and 2017, a total of 11,059 Zika cases in pregnant women were confirmed, producing 10,867 cases of microcephaly and other congenital malformations of their babies’ central nervous systems. Fifty-six percent of those babies were born to poor women and women of color from northeast Brazil.

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