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It’s Not Just About a Mosquito: Changing the Conversation on Zika

Shena Cavallo, a program officer for the International Women’s Health Coalition, recently travelled to the epicenter of the Zika epidemic in northeastern Brazil. There, she discovered that women’s health and rights are the burning issues of the day.

Written by Shena Cavallo Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Shena Cavallo from the International Women's Health Coalition says more needs be done to focus attention on women’s health and rights during the zika epidemic.AP/Felipe Dana

I had stocked up on mosquito repellant; I was travelling to Pernambuco State in Brazil’s northeast, and I wanted to be prepared. Pernambuco State is one of the regions hardest hit by Zika and also has the country’s highest number of recorded cases of microcephaly, the rare neurological disorder caused by the Zika virus. There are nearly 400 confirmed cases of microcephaly in the state and nearly 10,000 estimated cases throughout the region. The Zika virus and its related health complications have hit lower-income, predominantly Afro-Brazilian communities, especially hard.

As I took what may have been excessive precautions to prepare for my travels, I was reminded not to take the options I had for granted. Paula Viana, the co-coordinator of the local organization, Grupo Curumim, had told me earlier, “The government has been promising people free mosquito repellent for months. We’re still waiting.”

During my trip, I also became increasingly aware that, while mosquito control efforts are essential to stopping Zika, they are not the only front of protection. If women had more information on sexual and reproductive health and better access to these same health services, they could protect themselves and lessen the impact of Zika. Poorer women in Brazil still lack access to contraception and safe abortion, for example, greatly exacerbating the epidemic and contributing to women’s sense of uncertainty and fear.

Poorer women and girls in northeastern Brazil – as in other parts of the world – lack information about how to stay healthy and make decisions about if and when they have children. The Zika virus has made this blatantly clear. As Sueli Valongueiro, Grupo Curumim’s other co-coordinator, said: “It’s critical that we keep talking about the issues that the Zika virus did not create, but simply exposed.”

The Brazilian government has failed to provide consistent and accurate information about Zika to everyone. As a result, misconceptions are widespread. My taxi driver was convinced that the epidemic is a government conspiracy to wipe out the poor.

Shena Cavallo recently returned from Northeast Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika epidemic. (Shena Cavallo)
Shena Cavallo recently returned from Northeast Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika epidemic. (Shena Cavallo)

But local organizations are filling this information gap. While I was there, Grupo Curumim, a grantee partner of the International Women’s Health Coalition, worked with other groups to organize a seminar on Zika and sexual and reproductive health and human rights. They sought to counter myths and misunderstandings about the virus and provide the audience with the most up-to-date information.

The seminar was at a school in a town called Goiana. Not long ago, Goiana was a sleepy fishing town, but it has quickly become an economic hub in the region. An automobile factory, harbor and airport have brought a massive influx of mostly male laborers. Like many places in the northeast, however, economic growth has not resulted in higher standards of living for everyone. Access to basic services – such as sewage, trash collection and water – remains limited.

Entering the school, I noticed the windows were open and a fan was on. Although the school had air conditioners, they did not work. The sink was not working in the school bathroom so everyone washed their hands in a bucket of standing water.

The audience listened attentively as Curumim staff and others explained the various mosquito-borne viruses (Zika, dengue and chikungunya). They learned that Zika can be sexually transmitted, how it can affect one’s pregnancy and health overall, and how health providers are obligated to provide certain services and information.

Afterwards, I talked to several women and girls and asked them how they had found the seminar.

“I feel relieved,” Thais [name changed], a 15-year-old girl, told me. “Everyone is talking about the virus, but you never know what is real and what is false.”

Her mother chimed in: “It was nice the way they presented the information. I didn’t feel like they were blaming us for getting pregnant at such a time or not cleaning enough. I felt I could ask questions. It was so different than some of the information that has come directly from the government.”

In early 2016, Grupo Curumim began to receive an increasing number of phone calls from people desperate for information about Zika and its health implications. With a nearly 30-year track record in the community – providing youth leadership trainings, sexuality education for adolescents, and workshops for community health workers – the organization was seen as a trusted resource.

Local governments had released some information on Zika, but many of their campaigns placed the burden of preventing the spread of Zika and avoiding pregnancy on women, with little to no recognition of the government’s own obligations to ensure access to proper sanitation, information and services. And they failed to communicate women’s health and rights as a priority.

Curumim staff wanted to do things differently. As Paula told me: “We wanted the focus of our information and materials to be people, especially women and girls, not [just] a mosquito.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women and Girls Hub.

This article was first published on the International Women’s Health Coalition blog.

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