Tuesday February 02, 2016

Zika virus could lead to rise in unsafe abortions in Latin America

Geovane Silva holds his son Gustavo Henrique, who has microcephaly, at the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Recife, Brazil, January 26, 2016. Health authorities in the Brazilian state at the center of a rapidly spreading Zika outbreak have been overwhelmed by the alarming surge in cases of babies born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder associated to the mosquito-borne virus.

Geovane Silva holds his son Gustavo Henrique, who has microcephaly, at the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Recife, Brazil, January 26, 2016. Health authorities in the Brazilian state at the center of a rapidly spreading Zika outbreak have been overwhelmed by the alarming surge in cases of babies born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder associated to the mosquito-borne virus. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

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Columbia's health minister has warned women to avoid becoming pregnant, and the warnings are the same across much of the region. In El Salvador, women have been advised to put off conception until 2018.

It's all due to fears that the mosquito-borne Zika virus is to blame for a wave of microcephaly. Since last October, in Brazil alone, there have been nearly 4,000 cases of the birth defect, which leaves babies with unusually small heads and impaired brain development.

Many thousands more could be on their way — the World Health Organization yesterday declared Zika a "public health emergency of international concern." 

And, since Latin America is home to some of the most restrictive abortion access laws in the world, there's now a new fear that a rise of unsafe abortions will put women's lives at risk.

Carmen Barroso of International Planned Parenthood Federation is calling for governments to expand access to contraception, particularly vulnerable groups with low incomes. 

HEALTH-ZIKA/BRAZIL

Mothers with their children, who have microcephaly, await medical care at the Hospital Oswaldo Cruz, in Recife, Brazil, January 26, 2016. Health authorities in the Brazilian state at the center of a rapidly spreading Zika outbreak have been overwhelmed by the alarming surge in cases of babies born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder associated to the mosquito-borne virus. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

An estimated 1.5 million Brazilians have been infected by the Zika outbreak since last May. Science has yet to establish a definitive link between Zika and the condition. But scientists have nevertheless joined with Brazilian lawyers and activists to challenge the country's abortion laws. 

Researcher Debora Diniz is part of a group petitioning Brazil's supreme court to allow abortions for women who have contracted the Zika virus. Diniz points to class inequality and women's rights in Brazil as part of a wider issue. 

If the Zika virus does in fact end up altering abortion laws in Latin America, it won't be the first time that a disease or illness has done so.

Author Leslie Reagan of Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, joined The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti to share some of the history behind disease, pregnancy and abortion laws.
 

This segment was produced by Catherine Kalbfleisch, Ines Colabrese and Taylor Simmons.