The global public health emergency declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) over the Zika virus and its relation to microcephaly has pushed some countries in Latin America to advise women against getting pregnant.
But in a region where sexual education programs are practically non-existent and around 24 million women do not have access to modern birth control methods, the WHO fears that the warnings may fall on deaf ears.
The Zika virus is rapidly spreading in a region where abortions are often illegal. Only six Latin American countries allow the procedure in the case of fetal deformities, and seven countries do not even permit terminations if the mother is in danger.
Health experts also fear that doubts over the risks of Zika, together with the lack of options women have when deciding about their pregnancies could lead to a rise in the number of clandestine abortions.
The Zika virus is rapidly spreading in a region where abortions are in many places illegal
According to a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, which researches sexual issues, an estimated 56% of pregnancies in the region are not planned.
The figures were based on numbers from the UN Population Fund (UNPFA), which also found that 33% of Haitian women of fertile age and with a stable partner have trouble obtaining contraceptives, such as condoms and birth control pills. In Guatemala, the figure is 17% while in Argentina it is 15%.
The barriers are not just economic, but also social-cultural in a region that also suffers high numbers of sexual violence cases.
Women who live in extreme poverty and in rural areas are most at risk because of the lack of information they have about the Zika virus and their limited access to contraceptives, says Giselle Carino, assistant director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. They are also more in danger of contracting Zika, which is transmitted through the Aedes aegyptis mosquito, which also carries dengue fever and chikungunya.
The mosquitoes breed in areas with poor sanitary facilities and where standing water, which accumulates in places such as old tires and empty containers, is prevalent.
For the moment, Ecuador, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama and the US territory of Puerto Rico have all asked women to try to avoid getting pregnant for up to almost two years in some extreme cases – a warning that is not only insufficient but also extremely unrealistic.
“What they are doing is placing the entire burden on women,” says Carino.
Health authorities in these countries have still not introduced specific pregnancy prevention programs as recommended by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
“The Zika crisis has once again put reproductive rights violations in America in the spotlight,” says Mónica Roa, vice president of NGO Women’s Link Worldwide. “Not only are there no contraceptives available and no access to abortion, but lack of information, attention and prenatal controls have also become danger signs.”
Women who live in extreme poverty and in rural areas are most at risk because of the lack of information they have about the Zika virus
On top of that, determining if an unborn baby has microcephaly – which causes cranial defects and could lead to growth development problems – is also difficult, requiring an ultrasound scan at the very least.
Brazil, the country hit hardest by the Zika virus, has close to 4,000 suspected microcephaly cases. Women’s and reproductive rights organizations have called on the Brazilian government to relax abortion laws
“Once there is a diagnosis and with all the information at hand, it should be up to the women to decide whether they should continue with their pregnancy,” says pre-natal diagnosis expert Pilar Martínez-Ten.
Mexico, Belize and Panama allow abortions if the fetus is malformed; in Brazil, women are permitted to undergo the procedure if anencephaly – the absence of major portions of the brain and skull during development – is detected.
In other countries, such as Argentina, abortions are allowed if a doctor decides that the pregnancy poses a health or psychological risk to the mother.
Abortion is legal in Puerto Rico, which is subject to US federal law.
“The Zika crisis has once again put reproductive rights violations in America in the spotlight”
The procedure is completely banned in Dominican Republic, Chile, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Surinam.
The Zika virus has been detected in all these countries.
“Experience has taught us that despite the legal restrictions, when there is an unwanted pregnancy, especially among girls, and there are no other options, they end up finding unsafe ways to abort, which puts their health and lives at risk,” says Gillian Kane, an advisor with IPAS, an organization that works to prevent unsafe abortions.
English version by Martin Delfín.