Zika virus linked with birth defects

Brooklyn Dippo | News Editor

The Zika virus is spreading across the Americas and is leaving behind a devastating trail. The World Health Organization (WHO) has linked Zika virus outbreaks to an increase in cases of microcephaly in seven countries and has declared this possibly causal relationship a Public Health Emergency.

In many of the affected countries Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion and this crisis poses an interesting challenge to the Church. While health officials are advising women to delay pregnancy, the Church does not condone the use of birth control.


The Zika virus is most commonly spread through mosquitoes in Central American countries.

The Zika virus is most commonly spread through mosquitoes in Central American countries.

Microcephaly is a condition in which the brain does not fully develop and the head is abnormally small, leading to long-term issues including seizures, developmental delays and problems with motor skills and speech. The WHO is also investigating a link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system causing tingling in the extremities and possible paralysis.

Zika virus is spread by female Aedes mosquitoes, which feed during the day. This makes mosquito nets irrelevant for prevention. Women can only prevent the mosquitos from biting by using bug spray containing deet, wearing long, thick clothing or staying indoors. Only one in five people will show mild symptoms of a Zika infection but most are symptomless. Mosquitos are not the only way that it can spread though. Brazil discovered that the active Zika virus can be transmitted through saliva and urine after a case in Texas in which Zika was transmitted through sex.

Researchers are rapidly investigating the severity of the microcephaly cases and results are looking dismal. Given the risk of birth defects, at this time sexually active women in the affected areas may choose to use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.

The only type of birth control currently allowed by the Church is referred to as natural family planning. It has a 24 percent failure rate in comparison to less than 10 percent failure with the pill and less than one percent failure with hormonal implants or intrauterine devices according to the Center for Young Women’s Health.

Pope Francis himself is from South America and though he has not answered any questions about birth control under these circumstances yet, he has a record of showing mercy in controversial situations.

Michael Lovette-Colyer, the Assistant Vice President Director of University Ministry at the University of San Diego, explained how the issue of contraceptives originated.

“The Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit artificial birth control,” Lovette-Coyler said. “Informed by Scripture, that teaching has emerged from Catholic moral theology. Both Scripture and the Catholic moral theology tradition insist, however, that all Catholic teaching must be applied pastorally and compassionately.  Pope Francis has definitely demonstrated this point.”

Of course contraceptives are available to women regardless of the Church’s view. Sometimes it might be a more personal decision than religious one.

Jessica Pettenuzzo, a senior at USD who identifies as Catholic, says that if she were in the position to choose between using contraceptives or knowingly risking birth defects her decision would be easy.

“I would use contraceptives,” Pettenuzzo said. “Knowingly bringing a child into the world that will suffer from brain defects their entire life sounds way worse than preventing births.”

Just this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared a Level 1 status for the Zika outbreak. This status means that its emergency operations center is on the highest activation level, a status it has only reached three times before. Following this announcement President Obama will ask Congress for nearly two billion dollars to fund research, mosquito control, education, and aid for pregnant women at risk.