In April 2017, Puerto Rican officials declared the Zika epidemic over. Furthermore, they claim of the 3,678 pregnant women infected with the virus, only 35 babies have been reported with Zika-related birth defects, or about 1 percent. It appears, at first blush, quite good news.
But probe a bit deeper and things just don’t add up. These reported figures are far below the average of other countries. They have Zika-related health issues in newborns at a rate of 5 percent.
What’s clear is that the Puerto Rican government initially underreported the problem. Possibly to help kick start the tourist industry, which accounts for 6-7 percent of the national economy.
Unfortunately, the one-two punch of economic recession and Zika epidemic has had devastating consequences. As with all crises, economic or medical, it’s the women and children who are in the crosshairs.
ABCs of Zika. The virus initially showed up in Uganda and Tanzania 50 years ago and has since moved across parts of Africa, Asia and Indonesia. The disease recently jumped the ocean to Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States.
It is carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and has the unique characteristic that it is also transmitted sexually. Until a vaccine or cure is approved, the only way to stop the spread of the disease is to eliminate the carrier insects and promote safe-sex practices such as male and female condoms. Religious objections, particularly from the Catholic Church, to family planning and abortion has helped spread the infection in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and parts of Brazil, women have been diagnosed at a much higher rate than men. It’s possible that more females get tested for fear of the virus’ effects on pregnancy. Regardless, women make up the majority of known victims.
About 80 percent of those infected with Zika have mild, if any, symptoms — a rash, slight fever, joint aches and not much else. A few have profound illness, including paralysis. The biggest threat is to pregnant women who contract the virus. They have a 5 percent chance of miscarrying or brain-related birth defects. Many of the afflicted babies suffer from microcephaly which causes small heads and calcium deposits on the brain that affect hearing, eyesight and overall development.
In Puerto Rico there is a legitimate question whether the children born with microcephaly and other problems are acknowledged, but not officially reported, or if the mothers are not told of the diagnosis. Either scenario is a gross abuse of public trust.
Women and children last. Early detection and intervention is key. Babies with microcephaly should be evaluated by a pediatric neurologist and followed by a medical management team. Early intervention programs that involve physical, speech, and occupational therapists will help maximize abilities and minimize dysfunction. And medications can help control seizures and neuromuscular symptoms.
But let’s be real. The public healthcare system in Puerto Rico was gutted and privatized in the early ’90s, making quality medical care unavailable to the nearly half of the island’s populace that lives in poverty. Added to lack of access is the exorbitant cost of caring for children with brain damage. Estimates indicate it will average $4 million over the life of the child. Where is that money to come from? How are families supposed to cope?
As can be expected under capitalism, which always places profit over people, women bear the brunt of the burden. A lack of accessible and affordable medical care, including birth control and condoms, means unplanned pregnancies and poor pre-natal care. While abortion is legal in Puerto Rico the high cost can be prohibitive. And the lack of medical specialists — many leave the island for the United States to make a living — means there are fewer doctors available who can treat these children with special needs.
As one mom of a baby girl born with microcephaly said, “I just want her to be okay.” If only wishes could make the damage of a ravaged brain disappear. Unfortunately, they won’t. What is needed are services to assist these parents to provide for their families.
But it’s not coming from the tied-to-Uncle-Sam purse strings of this tiny island territory. The local politicians will cut just about anything to keep US financial interests appeased (for more info, see FS article online, “In Puerto Rico, colonialism is alive and well”). Would they also falsify Zika numbers? It seems entirely plausible.
As a colony of the USA, Puerto Rico has been for decades an all-you-can-take buffet for Wall Street. Thanks to austerity measures forced on the island, since 2006, over 7 percent of workers have lost their jobs and 8.6 percent have left their homeland.
This is the human cost of over a decade of depression and debt crisis which was caused by US policies, and fully endorsed by island politicos.
The women of Puerto Rico have long been treated like a disposable commodity. In the 20th century they were forcibly sterilized, often without knowledge or permission. At one point they were 10 times more likely to be sterilized than women on the mainland USA. Today it appears Puerto Rican women are being kept ill-informed about potential pregnancy complications, and are certainly economically unable to deal with the ravages of Zika birth defects.
It’s an old and unforgivable story. Women on the island, and everywhere, have the right to self-determination, including deciding when and if to have children.