Latin American countries experiencing high levels of Zika transmissions are currently seeing a huge rise in the demand for abortions, according to a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine. However, given that more than 97 percent of women in the region live in countries where abortion is either restricted or banned, public health experts fear that many could be forced to seek dangerous back-alley abortions.
The Zika virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, but can also be passed on through some body fluids. Though carriers themselves may not experience any negative symptoms, the virus has been shown to cause microcephaly in babies born to infected mothers.
In May last year, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert after the first Zika case was detected in Brazil, before issuing a new warning for Latin America as a whole in November. Among the advice being given to women across the region is to avoid getting pregnant, which is why many public health officials are concerned that those who do become pregnant may now be more likely to seek an abortion.
To investigate whether these warnings have produced an increase in demand for abortions, researchers looked at requests made to Women on Web for abortion medications. Women on Web is a charity that sends safe abortion drugs to women living in countries where access to abortion is restricted. Examining the number of requests made by women across Latin America between January 2010 and March 2016, the researchers expected to see a sharper-than-average rise in the months following that PAHO alert in November 2015.
Babies born to Zika-infected mothers are at risk of developing microcephaly. Bloomberg/Getty Images
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found a significant increase in requests coming from counties in Central America and the northern part of South America, most of which have recorded autochthonous Zika transmission and have legal restrictions on abortion. In Brazil, for instance, the rise in abortion requests following the PAHO warnings was 108 percent higher than would normally be expected. Similarly, in Ecuador this rise was 107.7 percent higher than normal, while in Venezuela the figure was 93.3 percent.
Study co-author Catherine Aiken remarked in a statement: “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. 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.”
Given that around 10 percent of all maternal deaths in Latin America are thought to be caused by unsafe abortions, failure to provide this sort of support could have significant consequences for women across the region.