A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by the Estonian National Television for the Sunday morning program. The main topic (of concern) was the Zika virus.
After the program aired, I got several calls and messages from friends and acquaintances, asking whether I truly believed and stood by my word that it is safe to travel to Brazil (for the Olympics or otherwise) in spite of the Zika virus.
Indeed, my answer was, and still is, the same – Zika virus definitely is not the biggest problem in Brazil. There are dangers to be considered, of course, when travelling to Brazil. There have always been. The situation with Zika virus, however, has completely been blown out of proportion, both, locally and on an international scale. Let me tell you why.
Nobody Talks About Dengue
First of all, the aedes aegypti mosquito not only transmits Zika, but also yellow fever, chikungunya and dengue. Every year, together with the arrival of the so-called mosquito season (hot and humid) the cases of the illnesses passed on by the feared mosquito grow exponentially. This year is no exception. However, an alarmingly higher number of both, Zika and dengue cases, have been recorded this year in Brazil (and other countries) than any of the previous years.
While Zika virus can pass with mild or no symptoms whatsoever, dengue usually causes weeks of suffering from muscle ache, fever, nausea, even hemorrhage. Medical attention is generally needed. Still, somehow it has been the rather harmless Zika virus that has solely gotten all of the media attention, caused panic and lead to establishing an international state of alert. Why is that?
No More Babies
It all started with a theory that if pregnant women are infected with Zika, the virus might seriously damage the fetus, eventually causing microcephaly – the incomplete development of the baby’s brain. The theory started when an unusually high number of microcephaly cases was registered in one of the Northeastern states of Brazil, Pernambuco. It is not clear, however, why and based on what proof the link between Zika and microcephaly was leaked to the public.
The reactions were expected. While pregnancy already is a time of anxiety and worry for the expecting mother, a news that a tiniest mosquito bite (which is almost impossible to avoid) can cause serious fetal malformation may turn your life and emotional state upside down.
While the connection between Zika and microcephaly was never officially confirmed, the doubts were enough for the Brazilian Government to recommend not getting pregnant and desperate women go looking for illegal means of abortion.
Women Taking Desperate Measures
In turn, both actions are a cause for national criticism. Firstly, how can a government recommend not having babies when contraceptives are not available for everyone and (sexual) education leaves much to be desired?
The second tendency is even more alarming. Abortion is prohibited and punished by imprisonment in Brazil. There are only three cases in which an abortion can legally be considered: rape; if pregnancy puts a mother’s life in danger; or if the fetus has no chances of survival outside the womb. Microcephaly babies do not qualify under any of the named three, nor does it seem that any exceptions would be made nor changing the law considered.
However, in despair of having a baby that will never be able to fully function on its own, some Brazilian women have already taken the matters to their own hands. According to Folha de São Paulo many educated, wealthy, married women have decided to end their planned pregnancies by seeking the anonymous assistance of very expensive private doctors and hospitals. The cost of the procedure in private clinics ranges from US $1,250 to US $3,750, which makes it inaccessible for the large majority of women in the country.
Those in a vulnerable position (that is the majority of women in Brazil), with no financial means to take care of a baby with microcephaly, are the ones in real danger. Seeking out medical advice of questionable quality (which they can afford) or ordering abortion pills online does not just put them in risk of serious complications or even death, but also being punished by the law and thrown in jail. The collective panic, however, is so strong that that they are willing to risk it all even though no certain answers have ever officially been given.
National Microcephaly Growth Disproved
All through the development of the Zika crisis there have been many statistics and contradictory information published in the national and international media. According to the official sources, until now, Brazil has thoroughly investigated 1,227 suspected cases of microcephaly.
Only about one-third, 462 to be exact, of those were confirmed as microcephaly, out of which 453, that is 98 per cent (!), happened in the North East of Brazil only. In the rest of the country, only nine cases have been confirmed, which is definitely not a significant growth of the cases of microcephaly on a national scale as stated before in the media.
In only 41 of the 462 studied and confirmed microcephaly cases it could be said that a connection with Zika virus might exist. Consequently, in more than 90 per cent of cases there is absolutely no connection. Moreover, whereas the Zika virus has spread the most in the states of São Paulo and Mina Gerais (South East of Brazil), no growth in microcephaly cases has been noted!
Conspiracy Theories to Consider
There are several conspiracy theories going around, which try to explain the real reason of the surge of the microcephaly cases in the North East of Brazil. One of them says that an expired vaccine was used on pregnant women in the North East of Brazil and Zika virus was used as a convenient excuse to cover it up.
The other suggests that the agrotoxics used in Brazil, many of which are prohibited in the developed world, are to be blamed. Whichever the truth, we will probably never now, neither how and why did the Zika crisis take the international dimensions, causing panic worldwide.
What we do know, is that Brazil is still a developing country. In addition, there are dengue, economic recession, corruption, political crisis and heated conflicts, urban violence and pollution in bays. But there are also wonderful, positive, most diverse people, Brazil being a melting pot of cultures, with breathtaking nature and thousands of opportunities. If you have considered all the above-mentioned cons and pros, then why would the Zika virus of all things stop you from travelling?
Articles used as a reference for this post:
2 Comments Add yours
I definitely agree with some of the points that you make in this article. People shouldn’t be afraid to travel, they just need to be smart about it!
I would consider updating your section about Zika not causing microcephaly. Months have passed since you posted, meaning more time to study Zika (worldwide), and the general scientific consensus now is that Zika IS a cause. You can find this on the World Health Organization page: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/en/
Just wanted to clear the air, especially since I’m sure you have a ton of readers 🙂
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Thank you for your comment! You are right, I should revisit and update this post indeed! Thanks for pointing that out! 🙂