The Zika virus is not only an officially-declared Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization, it is very specifically an issue of reproductive health.
Zika spreads to humans through the bites of virus-carrying mosquitos and can be transmitted from person to person through sex, even if the infected person is not displaying symptoms. The legitimate concern that is dominating conversation is the transmission of the virus from a pregnant woman to the fetus, and the likely grave outcomes. If a developing fetus is infected with Zika, it is likely to result in birth defects that affect the brain, specifically a condition called microcephaly. A baby with microcephaly has a head, and usually brain, that is smaller than average. Microcephaly can contribute to eye defects, hearing loss and impaired growth. Unlike other diseases like Rubella, which causes the most serious health outcomes at the beginning of a pregnancy, Zika can cause birth defects at any point in the gestational period. This means throughout the entire pregnancy, a woman may be at risk of contracting the virus that can cause birth defects.
Ensuring access to reproductive care for women with, or at risk of contracting, Zika became a was part of negotiations for the continuing resolution for the fiscal year 2017 budget. There was initially proposed language in the budget that would have blocked some reproductive health providers from receiving Zika-related funding. As previous funding allocated for Zika research and prevention dwindled, forcing the Department of Health and Human Services to use funds originally meant for cancer and mental health, it became even more urgent and critical for Congress to come to a consensus on providing support for Zika research and medical developments. Ultimately, an agreement was made that eliminated the restrictive language, and $1.1 billion was allocated to help prevent and effectively respond to the spread of the virus.
On August 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the first ever travel advisory over health conditions in the United States, as a result of Zika. The guidance advises pregnant women and partners of pregnant women against nonessential travel to Miami-Dade County in Florida. As a Floridian, I have seen the effects of Zika on the community first-hand. My doctors back home have called me to keep me updated on reported cases in my hometown, and to provide resources and additional reproductive care. In Judaism, women are commanded to care for their own health and well-being. It is essential that we continue to advocate for women’s access to reproductive health services and funding for research that can lead to methods of preventing the spread of Zika and its harmful effects, so that women have the resources to attend to their health.