US scientists call on the World Health Organization (WHO) to take urgent action by spreading the virus Zika, because the disease, according to doctors, has “pandemic potential.”
Scientists insist that WHO does not repeating the mistakes that occurred during the Ebola outbreak, and immediately convened a meeting of experts on the virus.
THE mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has spread to 22 countries and territories in the Americas, is terrifying to pregnant women and their partners. The virus may cause birth defects in babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy. In Brazil more than 4,000 have been born with abnormally small heads since last October, compared with fewer than 200 in a typical year. The response of several governments has triggered a debate about abortion, birth control and sex education which may outlast the outbreak itself.
It started after a handful of governments advised women to delay getting pregnant. Colombia, which has the second-highest number of infections after Brazil, advised women to wait six to eight months. Jamaica issued a similar recommendation, even though no cases of Zika have yet been reported there. El Salvador’s government suggested that women should delay pregnancy until 2018. Panama warned women from indigenous communities, in which infection rates are high, not to conceive.
Some women find this advice rather bossy. Others say that governments have done little to help women control their fertility. Paula Avila-Guillen of the Centre for Reproductive Rights, a lobby group in New York, notes that rates of sexual violence and teenage pregnancy in Latin America are among the world’s highest. The Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank, found that 56% of pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean are unintended.
Rates of accidental pregnancy are high because sex education is inadequate and birth control is hard to come by. Health workers are reluctant to prescribe contraceptives to teenagers or to women who have not yet given birth. If women are to avoid pregnancy, say women’s-rights activists, governments must inform them better and provide more access to contraception for both men and women.
Some argue that the Zika crisis should prompt countries to liberalise policies that severely restrict abortion. In El Salvador, which does not allow abortion even if a woman’s life is at risk, activists are stepping up their campaign for a change in the law. An editorial in Folha de São Paulo, a Brazilian newspaper, argued that Brazil should end its ban on most abortions.
Rather than calling on women to delay pregnancy, Brazil is sensibly concentrating its efforts on the real culprit, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also carries dengue and yellow fever. The country had stamped out the menace by 1958 but let down its guard and allowed it to return. This month the health minister, Marcelo Castro, announced that insect repellent will be distributed to 400,000 expectant mothers who qualify for Bolsa Família, a cash-transfer scheme. Some 310,000 health workers are raising awareness and teaching people how to keep mosquitoes at bay; on February 13th 220,000 soldiers will join them. Following World Health Organisation guidelines, Brazil advises women contemplating pregnancy on how to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes. Women need facts, not fertility targets.