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Zika virus: Can we really ask women to delay pregnancy?

Emily Harrison By Emily Harrison Published on February 2, 2016

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Now an international state of emergency, the Zika virus is causing people to become scared and nervous but most specifically among travellers and pregnant women. If a pregnant woman is not vulnerable enough, there is now an additional fear to tackle.

Fear mongering, on the internet especially, is something every mother, expectant mother or woman wanting a baby has to confront nowadays. Don’t eat this, don’t buy this, the list is endless…

However, the most recent Zika outbreak could be said to make the rest of it laughable. Women are not just being asked to weigh up two contrasting schools of thought on parenthood. There is no confusion here. Or is there?

Advice to the concerned parties differs. Some seem vigilant and others verge on the almost impossible:

  • Do not travel abroad if pregnant.
  • Delay pregnancy for the next two years.
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Avoiding travel to Latin America does make sense. This is something that a pregnant woman, in most scenarios, can control. The countries affected are Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, U.S.Virgin Islands and Venezuela. It would seem sensible at this point in time to cancel or postpone any travel plans until the World Health Organization declares the situation to be under control.

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However, the advice given by governments in El Salvador, Brazil, Columbia, Honduras and Jamaica (to name a few) to delay pregnancy to 2018 may be something a woman in the developed world has the luxury of being able to do but not all women in Latin America are able to.

Not only is contraception difficult to come by but they have the added obstacles of the rigid rules the Roman Catholic Church puts on the use of contraception and the fact that abortions are often illegal or very difficult to have carried out. In El Salvador, abortion is illegal even if the fetus is known to have malformations. The Globe and Mail labeled El Salvador as home of the worlds strictest anti abortion laws.

According to the International Planned Parenting Federation, Latin America and the Caribbean host 1.2 million unplanned pregnancies among adolescents a year. These women do not have services that the women in the developed world have at their fingertips: morning after pill, sex education, family planning and free contraception.

But, even if family planning was made available to consensual women in developing countries, we must not forget the number of rape victims. It is difficult to show statistical evidence for rape as unreported rape certainly accounts for many unwanted pregnancies across the globe. Regardless of the reported or unreported circumstances of the rape, many of these services do not apply. How can a woman having non-consensual sex plan her pregnancy, use contraception or educate her partner.

So is it feasible to ask women to avoid getting pregnant before 2018. The situational evidence suggests that it would be very difficult for the women of Latin America.

What about those in the developed world? Is the risk so high that even women in North America and Europe should be delaying their pregnancies?

Brazil has documented more than 3,500 cases of microcephaly between 2015 and January 2016. At present the cases in North America and Europe have been tallied up to a few dozen. While the seriousness of this cannot be dismissed, these cases occurred after a trip abroad, which underlines the necessity for pregnant women to limit or rule out travelling while the epidemic is contained.

In terms of delaying pregnancy, it would not seem a necessary step for these countries to advocate at this point. The best advice for expecting mothers or those planning to fall pregnant is to stay informed and be vigilant.

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For the more unfortunate expectant mothers or potential mothers, less urgency should be put on their actions (in terms of becoming pregnant or not) but more on the actions of the services, governmental bodies and health system.

Without this change, advice and recommendations such as delaying pregnancy plans are likely to have little if any real impact, unless they are also accompanied by changes in the availability and affordability of sexual and reproductive health services. These services should prepare themselves for being able to offer help and the best possible solutions.

The Roman Catholic Church may need to review its stance on contraception if the international state of emergency persists. Many unplanned pregnancies are a product of consensual sexual intercourse within marriage. If contraception were permissible a number cases could be prevented and relations within a marriage continued with no fear of falling pregnant and risking the babies health.

At this point in time, we can only hope that governments put their right foot forward and take the initiative to improve services.

British Canadian with a passion for travelling, languages, food and all things books. And most importantly, a loving wife and Mummy to two wonderful boys.

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