Miami, Fla., Sep 1, 2016 / 03:15 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With Zika virus reaching the continental U.S. in recent weeks, scientists are scrambling to find a cure and a vaccine. Meanwhile, the local Church is stepping up to help protect the most vulnerable populations.
“This is a public health crisis and we are working with people,” Richard Turcotte, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, told CNA. Within the Archdiocese of Miami – an area that now contains two local Zika transmission zones – Catholic Charities serves nearly 4,000 people a year, through 14 different social service programs that include counseling, elderly services, substance abuse recovery and homeless shelters.
The organization is focusing on prevention by working to reduce the likelihood of mosquito bites, particularly among the homeless population and children. In the areas specifically affected by Zika, Catholic Charities runs a child development center and a homelessness center. The organization has already made changes to its day-to-day operations aimed at protecting the people it serves from the mosquitoes that carry the virus.
First, Catholic Charities has installed mosquito traps and initiated daily inspections of both facilities to make sure there’s no standing water where mosquitoes can breed. As an added layer of protection, the childcare center has altered its schedule so that children do not need to go outside during the daytime, when the mosquito species that spreads Zika virus is most active.
Catholic Charities is also offering its clients information from the CDC about the disease’s symptoms and prevention. The Zika virus garnered international attention in 2015 after areas of Brazil noted a spike in cases of the birth defect microcephaly – a condition marked by abnormally small heads, brains, and developmental delays – following a recent outbreak of the virus in areas of northeastern Brazil.
By early 2016, the virus had spread to other areas of South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States. Research on the virus has confirmed the link between Zika virus infection during pregnancy and severe neurological birth defects, including microcephaly and incomplete brain development. Recent studies have also suggested that adult brain cells may be susceptible to Zika virus as well. Possible connections have been found between Zika virus and two autoimmune disorders: ADEM and Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Health officials recently found evidence of local Zika virus transmission in two separate areas around Miami, Florida. The discovery of the local transmission of the virus prompted a federal health advisory that pregnant women not visit the affected areas of Miami, the first such travel warning ever issued to an area in the continental United States due to an infectious disease. Officials are worried that the outbreak could get worse.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that by the end of 2016, Zika may infect as much as a quarter of the population of Puerto Rico, the United States’ most populous territory, with over 3 million inhabitants. Steps focused on prevention and eradication of the virus – such as those being implemented by Catholic Charities – are not only sound public health policy, but also help to respect the dignity of the human person and the good of society, said John DiCamillo, ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
DiCamillo applauded efforts such as the removal of mosquito breeding sites, targeting the breeds that spread Zika, and other prevention measures such as screens, air conditioning nets, bug repellant and public health education. These actions, he said, can help restrict the transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses for the entire population, which is particularly important as the danger of Zika among adults is becoming more known.
He criticized efforts to promote abortion as a solution to the spread of the disease, saying that this approach misses the point. “If we’re going about directly killing people who are part of a society as a means of protecting a society, then we’re doing something that’s fundamentally self-contradictory.”
“It’s important to remember that in each of these cases we’re dealing with a human life, a human person, who is being impacted by the disease, and at no point does that give us the right as a society, much less as a parent, to directly intend the destruction of that individual,” he said.
He added that while it may be “perfectly legitimate for public health authorities to encourage the avoidance of pregnancy,” contraception should not be advocated as a legitimate means of halting the disease. Contraption does nothing to stop the spread of Zika, he noted, and the Church teaches that its use is immoral because it violates the nature of the sexual act. “We can’t do evil that good may come of it,” DiCamillo stressed.
As the Zika outbreak continues in the United States and in the Western Hemisphere more broadly, DiCamillo hopes that prevention methods will follow the lead of Catholic Charities and center around evidence-based strategies of mosquito control and eradication. “I’d love to see a much greater focus or emphasis on the prevention of the spread of the disease through the prevention of mosquito bites,” he told CNA.
“That’s I think universally acknowledged by anyone in the scientific community or medical community as being the best way to prevent the disease and any of its harmful consequences – to go to the root and prevent the bites of mosquitoes.”