Students join public debate on Zika virus.

Lynn Morgan, Emily Jetmore ’18, and Emma “Lou” Goldfinch '17

By Sasha Nyary

Concerns that members of the US women’s soccer team might catch the Zika virus during the Rio Olympics are “fear-driven gender bias,” said Emily Jetmore ’18 in a letter to the editor that appeared online in the sports section of the New York Times

And the tragedy of the Zika virus could be a catalyst for major change, wrote Emma “Lou” Goldfinch ’17 in a letter that was published in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe

These students have joined the public opinion forum through their letters to the editor, which were written as an assignment for anthropology professor Lynn Morgan’s Global Health and Humanitarianism course. The medical anthropology class looks critically at global health disparities and human suffering.

Jetmore’s letter was written in response to an article about the risk that the US women’s soccer team might catch the virus during the Rio Olympics. She noted that the virus only stays in the blood of an infected person for about a week and that it was unlikely that women on the soccer team will be pregnant or plan to become pregnant during the competition.

“Undue panic driven by misinformation and misdirected focus will hinder the delivery of necessary health care to underserved populations already struggling to support those infected by Zika,” Jetmore wrote.

In Goldfinch’s letter to the Boston Globe, she compared the Zika outbreak to the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City a century ago. The tragedy led to changes for working women, she said, because public opinion at the time focused on the impossible recommendation that women and children refrain from working in unsafe conditions. She noted that the aftermath of the fire changed the course of labor rights for American women.

“Without access to safe abortions and affordable contraceptives, recommendations for women to refrain from pregnancy during this Zika outbreak are similarly impossible,” Goldfinch wrote. “If the media focus heavily on this contradiction, this tragedy will result in very positive changes.”  

Their letters stemmed from class discussions about health issues and programs set up to resolve those issues, Morgan said. Both students are anthropology majors.

“We are talking about what’s in the news, such as the Zika virus and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,” Morgan said. “This assignment was to research something that’s in the news, choose a publication such as a newspaper, a magazine, or a scholarly journal that accepts letters, and write a letter about it.”

Each member of the class chose a publication, looked at its instructions on how to write a letter to the editor, wrote a letter that was 150 to 200 words long, and sent it off. Two were published.

All 32 students in the class found the assignment empowering, Morgan said, whether or not their letters were published.

“They do have opinions,” she said, “They do have information, and they do have a right to join in these debates.”

She told the students not to take it personally if their letters didn’t get published, reminding them that many publications get hundreds of letters every day.

“This gives them the idea they can do this again when another issue comes up,” she said. “They are holding the media accountable and asking its members to be responsible about how they write about the issues.”