The Zika virus continues to devastate communities in Brazil and other countries in Latin America, as well as right here in the United States. Zika has been shown to cause microcephaly — a serious birth defect — as well as other severe neurological problems.

Uneven impact

In Brazil, the country hardest hit thus far, thousands of infants have been born with microcephaly. Their parents and families are struggling to cope, with women bearing the brunt of care. Most of those affected are poor, young, and marginalized and they receive little support from the government.

Zika is particularly challenging to stop because it can be transmitted in multiple ways. The majority of people infected with Zika thus far have gotten it through mosquito bites, but it can also be transmitted sexually, and these cases are rising. The virus is also spread through blood transfusions, and fetuses are infected in utero.

“To lessen the horrific impact of Zika on women and their families, Brazil and other countries should ensure that women have the information and the tools they need to protect themselves...”

While infection can be prevented, many people don’t know how the virus is transmitted, and lack the means to prevent it. In poorer communities, misconceptions are common and many people don’t have access to basic supplies like insect repellent to keep Zika at bay. They also don’t have access to contraception, which would help them prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Improving access with awareness

One of the first things the governments of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and El Salvador did was warn women "not to get pregnant." But they’ve done little to help women do this. Brazil, for example, has not expanded access to family planning services through its public health system; it is still often difficult for women to afford and find contraception.

To lessen the horrific impact of Zika on women and their families, Brazil and other countries should ensure that women have the information and the tools they need to protect themselves — including contraception. They should also be able to access abortion if they choose to terminate their pregnancies.

Those women whose infants were born with microcephaly and other neurological defects should receive cash benefits, rehabilitation services, and other social support — it’s the least governments can do to help them survive. Along with public health measures, Zika calls for compassion.