How the Brazilian Reproductive Health Crisis Impacts Trafficking

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by Cassidy Welter

In our first article on the Rio Olympics, we talked about the nature of sex tourism and how many people who otherwise would not, will engage in commercial sex tourism while traveling – especially when prostitution is legal in Brazil. It is important to note that Zika is sexually transmittable. Women who engage in commercial sex in Brazil are often poor, young, have had less access to education, and have less access to health services and reliable information about sexual health.

Over 165,000 cases of Zika infection have been reported in Brazil alone. The Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics have officially concluded though the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics will begin in September. Since Zika has become so prevalent in Brazil, the public health crisis has the international community rightfully concerned.  There is no cure for Zika, no vaccine to prevent the virus, nor have public health officials found a way to halt the spread of the virus. Many people who are infected with Zika will not display any symptoms, and a Zika diagnosis requires a special blood or urine test.  

The Zika virus has spread to 51 nations and territories.  In the past month, the United States has seen the first cases of Zika contracted by local mosquitoes in the Miami, Florida area.There have been past cases of Zika in the United States, and even in Illinois, but the virus was contracted through travel abroad to an area where Zika is present or through sexual intercourse with an infected partner. The Zika virus can be spread through a bite from an infected mosquito, through sexual intercourse with an infected person, or in utero where an infected mother transmits the virus to her fetus. For most adults, the symptoms are relatively mild, but for pregnant women and their offspring, the results can be devastating. Pregnant women can pass Zika on to their fetus, resulting in a range of birth defects. The most common birth defect associated with Zika is microcephaly, a neurological condition in which an infant’s skull and brain are much smaller than normal. Microcephaly is associated with developmental delays, mental retardation, seizures, and impaired coordination.

Many sexually trafficked women do not have reliable access to contraceptives and unwanted pregnancies occur regularly. Abortion is currently illegal in Brazil, and women who are convicted can receive up to three years in prison. Abortion is only legal in cases where the fetus is the product of rape or incest, if the pregnancy poses a fatal risk to the mother, or if the fetus has anencephaly, a severe birth defect.  The exact number of illegal abortions performed in Brazil each year is unknown, but more than 200,000 Brazilian women were hospitalized in the past year with complications from abortions.  Medical complications from abortions, legal or illegal, are the fourth leading cause of maternal mortality in Brazil.

Advocacy groups and non-governmental agencies are petitioning the Brazilian government to alter the existing abortion laws to allow women infected with Zika to terminate the pregnancy, though the Olympics delayed the legislative process. The Rio Summer Olympics officially have concluded, and tourists and athletes returned to their respective countries. Those individuals who engaged in sex tourism are at risk of contracting Zika and bringing the virus back to their home country. International travel during and following the Olympics may cause Zika to reach every continent. Millions of women in Brazil are at risk, and with the expected rise in sex tourism during the Olympics, the number of Zika cases is expected to rise. Women in Brazil who have been sexually trafficked are at an even higher risk, and advocacy groups and the government must find a public health solution to protect them.