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Zika and microcephaly: things to know

by Hilary Stace

The Zika Virus seems to have come out of nowhere to be declared a World Health Organisation Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 1 February 2016, after a substantial spike in cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome were reported in Central and South America. Now it threatens our part of the world.

This is the same status the WHO gave to Polio a couple of years ago when eradication of that disease had stalled and cases were starting to pop up again.

Apart from causing Guillain–Barré which is a nasty, mostly temporary, paralysis not unlike Polio, the main effect of Zika Virus infection seems to be the risk of microcephaly to babies born to infected mothers. Microcephaly is the label given to those born with unusually small heads and consequent brain damage. Although many babies do not survive birth, some do and grow into healthy (although disabled) adults.

Several years ago on Public Address there was a discussion with PA reader Islander about children born with this impairment – she had heard from family members with experience in midwifery and nursing that microcephalic babies were often quietly left to die. (This is now known as ‘wild’ or unofficial euthanasia by some.) She consulted with her midwife sisters and subsequently clarified that it was  it was in fact anenocephalics who were "quietly left aside".

Joe Wylie added in the same discussion that there were several people with microcephaly at the Kimberley Centre when his parents worked there in the 1960s. But until this current Zika Virus outbreak it was considered a rare condition, even in the disability community. This might change.

A US mother of two girls with microcephaly has become an instant celebrity with her realistic and mainly positive story of parenting her family.

It is hard to know how this outbreak will play out. The mosquito apparently cannot survive at the moment in New Zealand but the virus is already here, and it is spreading through the Pacific. Tonga has just declared it an epidemic.

Under current New Zealand immigration regulations families with a microcephalic child would be denied permanent entry to New Zealand because of the potential for future costs against the state.

So the Zika Virus raises a whole lot of issues (in no particular order) that will need more attention in the months and years ahead.

•• Disability as tragedy

• • Support for disabled babies, children and their families, including immigrant families

••  Access to pre-natal screening and all the related ethical issues such as "then what"?

• • Access to late term abortion

••  "Wild" euthanasia

• • Vaccination – if one becomes available

••  Heavy use of pesticides particularly in poor, crowded, residential areas

• • Pregnancy, gender, and autonomy

• • Need for good, responsive, well-funded science

And probably much more.

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