Ana Carolina Caceres is a journalist in Brazil. In a photograph in a recent story about her, she wears a garland of flowers, a simple necklace and a pleasant if somewhat nonplussed expression on her face. Caceres’ writing is clear and straightforward, as befits the blogger she is, but the story is not about her chosen profession – about what she does – but about who she is. Or rather a condition she has that some think should define her – or even have prevented her coming to birth.
Ms. Caceres was diagnosed at birth with microcephaly, the condition so much in the news as a result of a spike in cases associated with the spread of the Zika virus across Latin America.
The medical prognosis at birth for Ms. Caceres was grim, she writes. “On the day I was born,” she says, “the doctor said I had no chance of survival. ‘She will not walk, she will not talk and over time, she will enter a vegetative state until she dies.’” Needless to say, the medical prediction was wrong and today Ms. Caceres, the author of a book about her overcoming, describes herself “as a fulfilled, happy woman.” No one reading her account of growing up with microcephaly could disagree.
To be sure, she recognizes that microcephaly occurs across a range of impacts, some far more serious than the ones she faced as a child. Nevertheless, her family of modest income coped with gaps in insurance coverage, she underwent multiple surgeries, and she needed to take medication until she was 12. Despite these challenges, she ardently opposes the idea of aborting children potentially affected with microcephaly. What pregnant women need, she writes, is to remain calm and have “access to treatment.”
Unfortunately, while public health officials have generally done a creditable job of avoiding panic and offering sound advice on preventing the spread of and exposure to the mosquito-borne virus, some officials are stoking fear and misinformation. In El Salvador the government advised all women of childbearing age to avoid having children until 2018 – essentially a two-year period of complete national sterility. Elsewhere, international pro-choice groups, never letting a crisis go to waste, have used the occasion to advocate for repeal of laws against abortion in the South American nations where the virus first spiked.
Evidence for Zika as the cause of the spike in microcephaly is accumulating and research continues on the prevalence of the condition when infection occurs. A retrospective study in Micronesia from 2013 to 2015 found that fewer than one percent of women diagnosed with the Zika virus in the first trimester of pregnancy subsequently bore a child affected by the condition. New data from a much smaller study of 88 pregnant women in a Brazilian clinic found a 29 percent rate of damage to the developing baby. This is an extraordinarily wide range of harm, but it is enough to demonstrate there is significant risk and it more than justifies major investments in standard techniques and new technologies to check the spread of mosquitos.
The search for an effective vaccine must remain intensive, and support services for families with children affected by the virus need to be strengthened. These measures can help avert the kind of panicked response that motivated El Salvadoran officials and international abortion advocates.
The truth is that for too many groups, including many voices at the United Nations, the proper response to a serious disease is to destroy the human beings who may have it. The Zika virus has also been found to be associated with the debilitating Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which can result in severe neurological damage – and even paralysis – in children and adults. No one suggests that the proper public health approach to this condition is to “cure” it by eliminating its older victims. The same should apply to unborn children potentially affected by the virus, who are themselves victims of the outbreak. “Access to treatment” should be the watchword for every victim.
Ana Carolina Caceres is exactly right. Born with purportedly grim prospects, she is today an accomplished woman, who plays the violin and writes compelling prose. The world needs more people like her, and more people like her mother and other family members, who stayed calm and chose life. Similar to the global response to the polio crisis, the medical community should continue its fight against the Zika virus by refining treatments, decreasing transmission pathways, and ultimately developing a vaccine against Zika.
The enemy remains the disease-ridden mosquito, not the vulnerable baby.
Chuck Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.