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Zika virus and reproductive rights

Alex Thomson

March 6, 2016

The recent outbreak of the Zika virus in South America has brought to light conflicting policies around reproductive health, where governments are advising women against pregnancy while withholding support for reproductive health services such as contraception and abortion.

The Zika virus was first detected in Brazil in 2015, and is now present in 26 countries in the continent. Three million cases are expected in 2016. While the mosquito-borne virus usually results in relatively mild symptoms such as conjunctivitis, joint pain and fever, it has been associated with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and, in pregnancy, with an increase in foetus microcephaly (reduced brain size and limited development).

Although it has not been proven, the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly is sufficiently strong that the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on and wrote, “As these clusters (of microcephaly) have occurred in areas newly infected with Zika virus, and in keeping with good public health practice and the absence of another explanation for these clusters, the Committee highlights the importance of aggressive measures to reduce infection with Zika virus, particularly among pregnant women and women of childbearing age.”

In light of the potential risks, government officials in South American nations have warned women against getting pregnant.  In El Salvador, the government has recommended that women avoid getting pregnant for at least two years, while in Columbia, women have been advised to delay pregnancy for six to eight months. The Jamaican government made a similar pronouncement in spite of the absence of any recorded incidences of the virus there. In Panama, members of Indigenous communities have been singled out for the advisory. 

In many South American countries access to contraceptives is limited, especially in poorer and rural communities. In El Salvador, abortion is illegal under any circumstances. In Brazil, the government has indicated a refusal to allow abortions in pregnant women with Zika. According to Cécile Pouilly of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “The outbreak of Zika exacerbates a situation of human rights about the sexual and reproductive health in the Latin American region that was already worrisome.”

Women on Web

“It is the poorest women who are suffering from this crisis,” explained Dr. Rebecca Gomperts. “It is not women in the upper class neighborhoods, who can protect themselves from mosquito bites.” Dr. Gomperts runs the organization Women on Web, which mails medical abortion pills to women who contact them on the web.

“Our worry is that these women will turn to unsafe abortion methods, while we can help them with a safe, medical abortion.” But those who contact them are just the tip of the iceberg: “We know that a lot of these women don’t have access to the Internet. So the women that we read, are only a few of the ones really affected by this crisis."

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