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Haiti: When Zika virus is a 'blessing'

Sara Rigon is a doctor on assignment at our sexual and gender-based violence clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Here she blogs about the pregnant women who consider Zika virus  something to hope for rather than fear.

Sara Rigon is a doctor on assignment at our sexual and gender-based violence clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Here she blogs about the pregnant women who consider Zika virus  something to hope for rather than fear.

 
Imagine this: a situation where getting infected by Zika Virus (ZIKV) is a blessing. For a number of pregnant women in Haiti, this is close to reality.
 

What's with Zika?

Zika is not as new as we think. The virus was first discovered way back in 1947, in monkeys from the Zika Forest in Uganda (hence it's namesake).
 
However, Zika has recently gained a lot of attention and visibility. This is due to a link between the virus and an increase in incidences of microcephaly in newborns.
 
Side-view illustration of a baby with microcephaly (left) compared to a baby with a typical head size

 
Microcephaly is where the baby's brain has not developed properly during pregnancy, resulting in a smaller head. This can be coupled with other symptoms, including seizures, developmental delay and feeding problems.
 
In other words, mothers-to-be infected by Zika present a higher risk of giving birth to babies with brain and neurological defects. These can produce impairments at birth or later in life. There is also a higher risk of stillbirth. 
 
The virus is therefore a real danger for pregnant women.
 
So let me ask you again: Can you think of any reason or situation where getting infected by Zika would be a blessing for a pregnant woman?
 
This isn't a trick question.
 
At the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Pran men’m clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, we've seen women happy to the point of gratitude for having been blessed by Zika.
 
God answered their prayers and took care of their unwanted pregnancy - a result of rape/sexual abuse. 

This is the scenario in Haiti: abortion is illegal, sexual assault is pervasive and is the most prevalent form of violence against women. 

This is the scenario in Haiti: abortion is illegal, sexual assault is pervasive and is the most prevalent form of violence against women.
 
Family planning is within the law, but inconceivable and morally unacceptable by the general population. In Haiti, procreation is every woman's duty, and the emergency contraceptive pill is out of stock across the country.  
 
If, for whatever reason, you do not have access to emergency contraception pills in time, and you don't want unsafe abortion, Zika could, in fact, be your only option.
 

Emergency contraception and unsafe abortion

This is going to sound terrifying. Women consider  themselves “lucky” or “blessed” to be within the 0.5-30% percent of women whose babies develop microcephaly under Zika; or even "luckier" to be within the lower percentage of mothers who experience stillbirth, as their baby developed neurological anomalies incompatible with life.
 
In Haiti at the moment, international organisations like MSF may be the only providers of the emergency contraception pill.
 
Haiti - a country where abortion is illegal and therefore the unsafe abortion practices are widely spread - has an incredibly high death rate among women who suffer severe complications the result of unsafe abortions. 
 

Giving women rights and dignity

At the Pran Men'm clinic, we provide survivors of sexual violence and abuse with emergency contraception.
 
We also provide antibiotic and antiretroviral medications to prevent women who've been sexually assaulted from developing acute infections like gonorrhea or chlamydia, along with their harmful complications.
 
We also protect against chronic or lethal diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis B. 
 
With this brief post I would like to thank all MSF donors that make it possible for us to be here in Haiti.
 
I would also like to thank our staff, who help to improve women’s health and give Haitian women the rights and dignity every human being deserves. 
 
 
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