PANAMA CITY—I stare at my doctor in disbelief. He’s supposed to provide the best prenatal care in all of Panama. And he’s telling me, at eleven weeks pregnant during my first prenatal appointment, that I don’t need a blood test for the Zika virus.
I’ve traveled here from a remote community in Bocas del Toro, Panama—an outpost for backpackers, surfers, outlaws, and an uneasy mix of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous cultures. By US standards, I’m nearly a month tardy for my first prenatal exam. But getting to decent medical care is time-consuming and expensive, so I hope to combine necessary tests for this trip. I’m at the only hospital in Latin America affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, believing it will be my best shot at keeping this growing baby safe as the threat of disease rises.
“You don’t need to worry about Zika there,” the doctor says, leaning back confidently in his desk chair. “It’s really only in the indigenous communities.”
But Panama is the only country in the Americas with increasing reported cases of Zika. In the rural archipelago where we have lived on Oleada for the past four months, there have been 11 reported cases. That statistic makes me nervous: due to a combination of painfully limited state resources and reputedly poor healthcare, very few people see a doctor in Bocas. The hospital at the edge of town reflects the sorry state of medical care here: it’s crumbling into the unmown grass and trash scattered across the property. The facility is unable to test for Zika in Bocas, so any reported cases must travel elsewhere and self-identify for the test, which costs the equivalent of $150, a flabbergasting amount by local standards. In an area of only 2,000 people densely packed into a single settlement, 11 reported cases likely reflects only a tiny, eerie shadow of a much larger epidemic.