Strange Seeds

There is a strange affiliation between medicinal history and Black bodies in America.

That history contains the exploitation, abuse, and contributions of black bodies and black lives to “advances” in the creation and development of various treatments (e.g.,Henrietta Lacks, theTuskegee experiments, etc.) without any recognition. With recent reports of the Zika virus, that long felt fear and skepticism with regard to medicine and treatments resurfaces.

On February 3, 2016 Governor Rick Scott declared a public health emergency in four Florida counties. The initial report cited cases from Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Lee, and Santa Rosa counties. The state of emergency was due to nine confirmed travel-related cases of the Zika virus. The Zika virus is a non-fatal, mosquito-borne disease that seemingly places the gravest of dangers to pregnant women of color and their offspring. There are other mosquito-borne illnesses that are debilitating and fatal--such as your dengue and malaria varieties. The Florida Department of Health’s approved responses for the reason behind the public health emergency point to being precautionary, getting out ahead of it, and containing any possible spread. The state of emergency is largely because of the link to poor pregnancy performance.

The World Health Organization, doctors, scientists, and politicians are concerned about Zika virus on an international scale. The number of cases in Florida has since expanded to 122.  In Brazil, womyn are being encouraged to avoid pregnancy. Pregnant womyn in the United States are being encouraged to avoid travel to affected countries. Some families are faced with the grim question of whether to terminate pregnancies if the fetus is at risk of developing microcephaly or other neurological disorders.

The rise of Zika virus highlights the medicinal catch 22 in which womyn of color are caught. In an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain,  Vanessa Northington Gamble, a doctor and medical historian, shares a tale that brings to light how the bodies of enslaved black womyn contributed to gynecological research. These womyn, Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, are not mentioned or commemorated in this history. Multiple surgeries were performed on these womyn without anesthesia. The surgeries performed on these womyn were the experimental work and research of one gynecologist, who went on to be considered the “father of modern gynecology”. This story is striking. Gamble points out a crucial perception at the time. “They were not vulnerable to pain, especially Black womyn. So that they had suffered pain in other parts of their lives and their pain was ignored.”

There are countless modern vignettes that support this idea in today’s medical treatment. Black and brown people still receive callous medical treatment. Womyn in these communities are still having traumatic birth experiences. Pain from these bodies is still rigorously interrogated before it is treated. The treatment is often bare bones. It is not a new idea that the historical exploitation and treatment of our bodies compounds our skepticism with our health and health care professionals.

That skepticism need not make us fearful. We must build that trust. We must restore our voices in these spaces.  Medical treatment, however, is not the singular component of health; there are also the often overlooked components of prevention and proactivity.

As one comrade succinctly put it: "When someone is showing you something with the right hand, watch what they're doing with the left." Nancy Klein's theory, the Shock Doctrine, discusses an economic practice that relies on moments of public crisis to push through radical policies. During a crisis policies go into effect, which usually exploit and debilitate the people. Such policies would not be permitted by a healthy, attentive, and secure populace. I have long wondered if health scares and the resulting fear-mongering produce a similar shock that influence our capacity to think objectively and proactively about our health, healthcare policies, and access to our bodies.

Deborah Diniz writes an op-ed, which lays out a link that we are not hearing in the reports of the Zika virus. In Brazil, the Zika virus is "concentrated among young, poor, black and brown women, a vast majority of them living in the country's least-developed regions". According to Diniz, Zika gives us the chance to evaluate inequality and women's reproductive rights. Zika also gives us the opportunity to consider the effects of climate change on mosquito populations.

In recent days, reports that point to the connection between microcephaly and larvicide have developed and been challenged. Supporters of the claim cite water supply contamination and larvicide exposure as potential explanations to the rise in microcephaly. Whichever stance you hold, this claim points to a larger question of our responses and proactivity to public health initiatives. Common methods to reduce mosquito population involve applying adulticides via hand spraying or truck spraying and the usage of larvicide as treatment to standing water.

For residential spraying and treatment methods pesticides have to be EPA approved. However there are gray areas in EPA regulation and review of these pesticides. For example, the pesticide temephos, which has heavy larvicidal content, may have negative health effects after sustained exposure. In 2011, temephos came under review by the EPA and the decision was to revoke its usage.

However, temephos can still be sold until December 2016 and the remaining stock used thereafter. The claim here is not that temephos is being used in current Florida spraying measures. Instead, it is a question of how much we know about what is being sprayed and put in our water supply? We must be proactive in answering these questions and others that impact our daily health. It need not take Zika or another health crisis for us to intentionally address and question these gray areas.

Zika virus and its spread has not occurred in a vacuum. Neither have the rising cases of microcephaly. Rising mosquito populations are not by chance or coincidence. These types of epidemics typically wreak havoc in impoverished communities, where resources and access are lacking.

Health and wellness are not singularly tied to medical treatments. For all its shame and transgressions, medicine serves as a vital component of our lives. We have a long way to go towards the restoration of our dignity and reclamation of our bodies in medicine and scientific research. The work we do should not only occur in relation to medical treatment, healthcare professionals, and doctors. We are all healers in our own right. No matter the scale, most have some grandmother’s or auntie’s remedy that they swear by. Remedies that will knock something out when the doctor says to let it run it’s course. We supplementally treat ourselves.

As we Dream Defenders cultivate an existence and world in our own image, how can we build supplemental healing spaces in our communities? We need collaborative healing spaces. Spaces where our pain is acknowledged and validated. Where “medical treatments” can be questioned and challenged, where womyn and men and any folx can seek out and choose alternative treatments. Healing is more than a prognosis, prescription, and pill. Healing is constant and necessary as part of living, communities should have a voice in defining what healing is to them.