JUL 01, 2016 6:07 AM PDT

Abortion Dilemmas Heightened Amid Zika Scare

Amid concerns over the spread of Zika, researchers are reporting a surge in the number of abortions. A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine found abortion requests spiked between 36 percent to 108 percent in Latin American countries that are afflicted with Zika.
Image credit: National Geographic
The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes genus of mosquitoes. People can’t infect other people with Zika, but they can serve as the intermediary source for more Zika infections by the mosquitoes. In adults, infection with the virus can bring no symptoms at all or cause mild cold-like symptoms, such as fever and headaches. However, in pregnant mothers, evidence suggests that the virus causes babies to be born with microcephaly – a condition marked by abnormally small heads and brains. Over 4,000 cases of Zika-linked microcephalic births were reported for Brazil last year. This statistic represented a staggering 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly in the nation.

Microcephaly can lead to severe neurological and developmental deficits. Thus, women in countries with high risks of Zika transmission are afraid, and rightfully so. Some governments are also warning women to delay pregnancy – El Salvador, for example, wants women to wait until 2018 to have a baby.

But here’s the rub, many of these Zika-afflicted countries have made abortion illegal. Further, birth control and contraceptives aren’t readily available to women, leading to a whopping 58 percent of pregnancies in Latin America that are classified as unintentional. So these women are faced with a catch-22: avoid pregnancies without the appropriate tools with no legitimate means of terminating the pregnancies if infected with Zika.

Nevertheless, abortion rates are spiking across the Latin American countries because women are turning to unauthorized means to terminate their pregnancies. One unofficial channel is known as Women on Web (WoW), a non-profit organization that connects women without means of abortion to medications such as mifepristone and misoprostol. According to the study, requests for medication through WoW increased to 36 percent in Costa Rica and as high as 108 percent in Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika outbreak.

Still, researchers suspect their numbers may be less than the true number of Zika-influenced abortions. "Accurate data on the choices pregnant women make in Latin America is hard to obtain,” said Abigail Aiken, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and lead study author. “If anything, our approach may underestimate the impact of health warning on requests for abortion, as many women may have used an unsafe method or visited local underground providers."

Among the many precautions prompted by the Zika outbreak, it only seems logical and morally ethical that women should have safe access to basic health care needs, including abortion care. "The World Health Organization predicts as many as four million Zika cases across the Americas over the next year, and the virus will inevitably spread to other countries,” said Aiken. “It isn't enough for health officials just to warn women about the risks associated Zika — they must also make efforts to ensure that women are offered safe, legal, and accessible reproductive choices."

Additional source: BBC, Vox, Time
About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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