Zika: News from the frontlines

by Sonia CorrêaSexuality Policy Watch 8 April 2016…The Brazilian state’s response to the Zika crisis has been decidedly skewed. On the one hand, it has been quite rapid, efficient and well funded with regard to biomedical and epidemiological research. Since late 2015, roughly 35 million dollars have been channelled to domestic research groups working in partnership with international institutions. One main outcome of these investments is that Fiocruz, the main Brazilian public health foundation, has announced that a rapid test for Zika may be available as early as June. Furthermore research findings have been pouring in since January and, in partnership with PAHO/WHO, an epidemiological situation room has been established that provides weekly updates on Dengue, Zika and Chicungunya, including information regarding “microcephaly” (in Portuguese).…However, when we look at the public health response at the ground level, where women are coping with the reproductive effects of Zika and also the symptoms and side effects of Dengue and Chikungunya, the situation becomes dire. Press reports keep pouring in from all over the country, including the most dramatically affected areas, relating the difficulties women face in accessing health care, both for themselves and their babies. In early March, UN Women, in partnership with PAHO and UNFPA, convened a meeting of women’s organizations, particularly those based in the regions where the epidemics are more severe. The reports brought to the meeting dramatically demonstrated that while women are at the centre of the epidemics in day-to-day life, their voices and experiences are not being taken seriously by the state response in the realm of health care.If this poor response is obvious in the more conventional areas of maternal and child health care, the failures with regards to sexual and reproductive health are even more drastic. No additional effort has been made, for example, to expand access to contraceptives in the most affected areas. These problems have their origin in the gradual abandonment of the SRHR agenda in recent years, but they also reflect the impact of the political crisis on the executive branch’s implementation capacity . In response to these failures, a Women’s Situation Room has been established to assess the Zika crisis, which will meet periodically, with the support of the above mentioned UN agencies.In this somber scenario, one positive policy development must be mentioned: the Ministry of Social Development has issued an ordinance granting access to a social security benefit known as the BCP (with the value of the monthly minimum wage: US$ 300) for all mothers of babies affected by Zika-related congenital syndrome. Although the amount is not enough to ensure the quality of life of these women and their children, the measure is to be praised. It should also be noted that this was adopted in direct response to the claims made by Anis when it proposed an appeal to the Brazilian Supreme Court in relation to the Zika crisis and its effects on women’s lives, health and reproductive rights.The Anis proposal is moving forward in partnership with the National Association of Public Defenders (ANADEP). At this stage, according to Débora Diniz:“The appeal is at an  intermediate stage of finalization. National and international opinions of experts from various fields of knowledge – medicine, psychology, history of medicine, basic science – are being collected in order to be attached to the briefing that will accompany the appeal to the Supreme Court.It should be noted that an enormous amount of responsibility will be placed on the Supreme Court as the final guarantor of constitutional premises in the complex processing of the current political crisis (in Portuguese). This means that the Anis and ANEDEP legal challenge will face many obstacles. Nevertheless, it is a major step forward.