Pregnant in the time of Zika: How Congress failed women like me

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My husband and I married over a year ago, and in that time we found plenty of reasons not to get pregnant: international trips, professional commitments, a general love of sleep. Thus, when we finally decided that our desire for a child superseded those other priorities, it seemed ironic that nature presented us with yet another compelling reason to wait—the threat of the mosquito-borne Zika virus arriving in Miami, where we live.

As Latin American governments, concerned about the link between the virus and birth defects, advised citizens of childbearing age to postpone pregnancy for up to two years, we decided to take our chances. We knew it was a calculated risk: I was almost 33 years-old, and for us, waiting felt like as much of a gamble as attempting to get pregnant with the threat of Zika looming on the horizon. We hoped that with enough advance notice the federal government would prevent the spread of the virus throughout the continental United States.


Almost six months later, at 22 weeks pregnant, I have never worried that we made the wrong decision in trying to become pregnant. Instead, as Florida confirms more than 20 locally-transmitted cases of Zika, I now fear that I placed too much faith in my government to address this crisis.

Like any first-time mom, I expected sleepless nights worrying about everything that could go wrong with a pregnancy—and even more nights spent cataloguing my many inadequacies and anxieties, the myriad ways in which I might not be cut out for the challenges of motherhood. Will I remember to feed the baby? What if the baby inherits my bad eyesight? Should I be concerned about the one sonogram in which my sweet fetus looks disturbingly like Darth Vader? I did not expect to stay awake wondering if I should flee the city and state that I live in to protect myself and my baby from the ravaging effects of Zika.


Right now, the odds of contracting the virus are still relatively slim, but the consequences if you do can be devastating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that Zika-transmission during pregnancy can result in severe fetal brain defects, including microcephaly. The virus has also been linked to issues with eyesight, hearing, and overall growth. Last week a baby born in Texas died of Zika-related brain defects. And to add to the terror, there is so much we still don’t know, including the connection between the trimester of transmission and subsequent effects, or the risk the virus might pose for future pregnancies.

When I asked U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently if there is a point during pregnancy at which the known birth defects associated with Zika could decline, his response—“We don’t fully know the answer to that”—only highlighted the dearth of information about the virus.

And what happens if the virus continues to spread? I asked Dr. Murthy if there will be a tipping point when pregnant women will be encouraged to leave the Miami area. The Surgeon General demurred on the possibility of a future in which escaping is necessary and stuck instead to the here and now, telling me, "We're not encouraging women to leave the Miami area."

Meanwhile, with Zika funding repeatedly ensnared in partisan debates, Congress has failed to pass the emergency legislation necessary to properly address this crisis. Public health officials warn that without those additional resources, efforts to combat Zika will be jeopardized. As Murthy explained, funding is crucial for developing a vaccine, ensuring that anyone can get tested for the virus, and expanding public education. “Without additional resources,” he told me, “Our ability to plan and execute the second phase of studies that is required to develop a vaccine will be impaired. And that’s not a risk or a chance that any of us should take.”

Last Thursday, the Obama administration said it was moving $81 million away from other programs to pay for the development of a Zika vaccine, but that is still woefully short of the $1.9 billion in emergency funding that the White House urged Congress to approve back in February. The seven months it has taken to get even this commitment may not mean much to a bureaucrat, but it means everything to a woman who is five-and-a-half months pregnant.


As an expectant mother, I make daily choices for the well-being of my pregnancy—everything from how much caffeine I consume to the position I sleep in. Now those choices include wearing long sleeves and pants in Miami’s 90-degree August heat, dabbing bug spray on my wrists and neck, limiting my exposure to the outdoors, and a larger looming decision about whether to stay or go. But ultimately, my personal control is limited. I am placing much of my health and my pregnancy in the hands of a government that purports to prioritize the wellbeing of women and children but has failed to live up to that commitment.

Alicia Menendez is an anchor and special correspondent for Fusion, where she covers stories at the intersection of politics and pop culture. Named "Broadcast Journalism's New Gladiator" by Elle Magazine, and "Ms. Millennial" by The Washington Post, Alicia has emerged as one of the most influential voices of her generation. Originally from Union City, NJ, Alicia graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She currently resides in Miami with her husband.