Zika virus makes a longstanding public health crisis impossible to ignore

Could the Zika outbreak and its harmful effects on women and children finally draw attention to the global need for sexual and reproductive health care — including safe abortion?

Mothers with their children, who have microcephaly, await medical care at a hospital in Brazil. (REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino)

Detected in Brazil in May 2015, and now spread to more than 20 countries in Latin America, the Zika virus and its suspected link to microcephaly have captured international attention. The World Health Organization announcement this week declaring a public health emergency has added to the sense of utmost urgency. The crisis has expectant mothers, Latin American governments, global health agencies, and media around the globe alarmed because of the likely connection to microcephaly, a fetal condition associated with incomplete brain development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned pregnant women and those trying to conceive in the U.S. to avoid travel to affected countries.

Could the Zika outbreak and its harmful effects on women and children finally draw global attention to the global need for sexual and reproductive health care — including safe abortion?

We are still learning about Zika, how it travels, and what impact the virus has on its victims. We know it can pass from mother to child, and a case detected last week in Texas is believed to have been sexually transmitted. Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and Honduras have gone so far as to recommend that women simply avoid becoming pregnant for various lengths of time — ranging from six months to two years. This recommendation is paternalistic and completely unrealistic. For Salvadoran women in particular, this suggestion adds insult to injury in a nation where access to sex education and modern contraception remain limited and where abortion is completely outlawed, even to save a woman’s life.

What’s more, rates of sexual violence remain particularly high in Latin America, a reality ignored by officials who recommend that women simply not get pregnant. One of the most emotionally challenging projects Planned Parenthood Global and our partners work on is a campaign called Stolen Lives, which documents pregnancies among 9-14-year-olds in Latin America. These cases of rape and incest, often combined with emotional abuse, go virtually uncounted by governments, but our local partners find new cases every day of girls carrying pregnancies they could not possibly have avoided on their own.

A Pro-abortion activist holds up a sign reading "We decide" during a march to support a proposal to change Peruvian abortion laws. (REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo)

A Pro-abortion activist holds up a sign reading “We decide” during a march to support a proposal to change Peruvian abortion laws. (REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo)

Roughly 9,000 women in Latin America and the Caribbean die in childbirth each year, and 760,000 are hospitalized due to complications from unsafe abortion. Where is the outrage, hysteria, and media coverage in response to these “normal” events? The sad truth is that women suffering and dying from preventable health problems has become too commonplace to make headlines.

While many countries in the region have greatly reduced maternal deaths in recent years, cultural taboos and religious influence hold modern methods of family planning out of reach for many women and their partners. Pope Francis made headlines last year reassuring Catholics that they didn’t have to breed “like rabbits” and could use natural family planning methods to limit the size of their families. While relatively progressive for a pope, the suggestion that women rely totally on natural methods is not enough. For these methods to work, couples need counseling on how to use them.

The U.S. is the world’s largest donor when it comes to international family planning, though like many global donors, our government has “graduated” many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, declaring them middle-income and no longer in need of our assistance. Meanwhile, health clinics across the region, especially those far from capital cities, face frequent stock shortages. A woman who beats the odds and is able to walk into a health facility to inquire about birth control pills or an IUD could easily be turned away due to lack of supplies.

If this crisis sheds light on anything, it is that our work in the region is not yet done. Donor governments need to increase investments and regional governments need to start drafting more realistic action plans than avoiding pregnancies until 2018.

We can no longer afford this state of denial. Urging women to avoid pregnancies indefinitely is not a realistic solution to a public health problem; access to family planning information and services plus safe and legal abortion is what women want and need.

Latanya Mapp Frett is Executive Director, Planned Parenthood Global, and Vice President Global, Planned Parenthood Federation of America.


More than 3,100 pregnant women in Colombia infected with Zika virus

First case of Zika contracted in U.S. was sexually transmitted, officials say

WHO declares Zika virus a “global health emergency”

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