Latest study confirms: the threat is Zika, not children
“There is no longer any doubt that Zika causes microcephaly,” Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, told reporters during a briefing on April 13. He was reporting on a new study confirming the suspected link between the virus and the birth defect.
Frieden might have avoided some potential confusion, however, if he had said that Zika can cause microcephaly. There is a connection, but the nature of that connection is not yet clear. It is not a straightforward cause-and-effect connection such that a Zika infection during pregnancy would guarantee microcephaly. Rather, the infection would heighten the risk. The available studies show that if a pregnant woman is infected, there is a chance—anywhere between 1% and 29%; the studies are nowhere near conclusive on that score– that the baby will suffer from microcephaly, which is otherwise a rare condition.
On the basis of that information, one can logically argue that women infected with Zika should avoid pregnancy. But it’s not so reasonable to argue that all women in the countries affected by the virus should fear pregnancy—which is the argument that leaders in several Latin American countries have already made. Pregnancy always entails some risks; the presence of the Zika virus adds incrementally to those risks. But for a woman who is not already infected, the additional risk is not overwhelming—not so great that it should bar any chance of having children.
A better solution, from a public-health perspective, would be to help women of child-bearing age avoid Zika infection. For that matter, the top priority should always have been to help everyone avoid that risk. Let’s do our utmost to wipe out the disease, not to eliminate a generation of Latin American children.
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