Zika: Crisis of the poor

As the thermometer soars past 90 degrees and Zika arrives in the Southern states, summer won’t be fun and games, especially for women, Black people and the poor. Zika is arriving.

Hot, moist climates, extreme poverty, crowded neighborhoods, stagnant water pooling in refuse and drainage ditches, still no federal funding or coordinated prevention plan, reactionary abortion laws: a bad recipe for the rampant spread of Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

The World Health Organization encourages countries heavily affected by Zika to use “both old and new approaches to mosquito control as the most immediate line of defense.” (theguardian, Feb. 16)

Zika is a women’s issue

This month a New Jersey woman gave birth to the third baby in the U.S. with Zika-related microcephaly. She acquired Zika while visiting Honduras.

Over 150 pregnant women in the U.S. have reported Zika-like symptoms, and another 129-plus are in U.S. colonies, mainly Puerto Rico. (CDC, May) Women are desperately seeking more information about Zika, a looming crisis that can affect the lives of women and their families.

A new report shows women of reproductive age (from 15 to 44) are 90 percent more likely than men to be infected with Zika through sexual transmission. This means more babies may be born with virus-caused microcephaly due to sexual transmission than was previously thought, making the need for access to contraception even more important as Zika spreads. (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, May 26)

Zika reaches a fetus by crossing cells into the placenta. The virus kills developing nerve cells in fetal brain tissue. (Lancet, March 15) Zika reproduces in these neural cells and infects neighboring cells. The virus also damages cells that insulate neurons in a fetus and in adults. (Cell Stem Cell, May) Even tiny amounts of virus can cause damage throughout pregnancy, especially in the first trimester.

The World Health Organization reported in June evidence of a wider range of abnormalities than was earlier expected from Zika-related births: eye defects, hearing loss, impaired growth, spasticity, seizures and irritability.

In Brazil, nearly 1,000 babies have been born with microcephaly since the Zika outbreak last October. Abortion is illegal and contraception hard to find in Brazil, but Southern states in the U.S. also have severe anti-choice laws. In Texas, so many women’s clinics have had to shut down that 25 percent of women seeking abortions live over 140 miles from a clinic. Long distances, loss of a workday, no money for child care and transportation put women, especially poor women, in a tough situation. “Between 100,000 and 240,000 women of reproductive age living in Texas tried to end their pregnancy on their own,” reported ThinkProgress on March 30.

Zika is a class and race issue

By the end of June, Zika is expected to hit the South, where over 20 percent of the people live in poverty. But this figure doesn’t show the huge white-Black poverty gap.

For example, Wilcox County, Ala., is the poorest county in the U.S. Not for white people, though. The poverty rate among the county’s white population is just 8.8 percent, compared to 50.2 percent for the Black population. The trend is similar in other Black Belt counties. (Al.com, May 2015)

Due to poverty, Southerners have a higher incidence of chronic illnesses and other poor health outcomes. More people live without health coverage or Medicaid. The gender-wage gap is highest in the South, with the biggest discrepancy in Louisiana, where women make 65.9 cents for every dollar a man makes. (U.S. News, September 2014)

Extreme poverty makes it unrealistic for people to follow recommendations for preventing Zika: install window screens, air conditioning, drainage pipes, clean up standing water, get regular medical check-ups. “Another thing Southern states have in common is Republican political leaders that have spent the past decade shrinking the social safety net.” (Huffpost Business, July 2014)

The poorest counties will continue to have the worst mosquito control programs, because there is no central planning or funding in the U.S. for this crisis. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut $44 million in April from its fund that helps state and local governments prepare for public health emergencies. (NPR, May 19)

Money for vaccines and Zika research

There are five possible vaccines that may be ready to test by September. However, “A top health researcher said he is worried a lack of funding may dramatically impede the search for a Zika vaccine, as the House and Senate prepare to lock horns over how much funding to provide the Obama administration to deal with the virus.” (Washington Examiner, May)

Oxitec, a British biotech company, engineered and tested genes designed to reduce populations of the Zika-carrying mosquito, Aedes aegypti. Both are inserted into male mosquitoes that don’t bite humans when released into the wild. One gene causes males to bear infertile offspring; the other gene kills future offspring.

Although Oxitec claims a 90 percent success rate during field tests in the Cayman Islands, Panama, Malaysia and Brazil, those rates may be controversial. Last month the company announced an expansion of the program it calls the Friendly Aedes aegypti Project.

Pending FDA approval, Oxitec hopes to conduct trials in the Florida Keys this summer.

Opponents of the field trials include the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, which carries signs reading “No Consent” into heated public meetings. They argue that with so many variables in nature, we should be more careful. Besides, the program is expensive for developing countries and poor Southern communities. Oxitec’s bioengineered mosquitoes would cost Brazil $10 per person, twice the country’s current annual budget for Zika control.

Oxitec supporters say engineered mosquitoes will replace harmful, ineffective insecticides that can’t reach areas indoors and will increase mosquito resistance over time. With 3,000 mosquito species on earth, the technology targets only the invasive species Aedes aegypti. Disease-carrying mosquito bites from 100 species make them the most deadly animal on earth, killing over 700,000 people a year. (Smithsonian, June)

It’s time for the U.S. to approve substantial funding to deal with the Zika crisis — not just take money allotted for Ebola and other tropical diseases. It’s time to fund research for vaccines and technologies to curb the Zika crisis. It’s time to bail out the Southern states to stop the spread of Zika and provide contraception, abortions and women’s health care. It’s time to subsidize families with children who will live with microcephaly.

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