HOUSTON (CN) – The suspected link of Zika virus to birth defects has women’s health advocates calling for the repeal of strict abortion laws in Latin America, and has even brought criticism of the continent’s powerful Catholic Church.
Scientists are scrambling to determine if the virus is responsible for the surge of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil, where officials confirmed approximately 4,000 cases in 2015 – up from less than 150 the year before – and believe Zika is being passed from mothers to their fetuses. Babies with the defect have small heads and developmental delays.
President Obama on Monday called for Congress to authorize $1.8 billion in emergency funding to boost vaccine research, educate doctors and pregnant women and help the dozens of countries that have active cases fight the Aedes mosquito, the genus that transmit the virus.
Columbia’s President Juan Manuel Santos defied the conventional wisdom on Saturday by announcing that the country has diagnosed more than 3,000 pregnant women with the virus, among whom there are no cases of microcephaly. He said more than 25,000 Columbians had been infected.
But Columbian health officials said last week that three people had died from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing disease the health officials attributed to Zika.
Guillain-Barré is believed to be an ancillary effect of Zika. It causes the immune system to attacks the nerves, and can cause paralysis and death.
Officials in El Salvador have urged women to delay getting pregnant until 2018, in the hope a vaccine will be developed.
But many say that’s an unrealistic request in a country dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, which prohibits contraception, and in a poor, war-ravaged land where women are often victims of sexual violence, which leads to unwanted pregnancies.
Abortion is considered first-degree murder in El Salvador, punishable by 30 years in prison. Salvadoran legislators do not want to risk angering the church and endangering their careers by calling for more lax abortion laws, according to an attorney in El Salvador who asked that his identity be withheld.
Cases of the Zika virus, which health officials say causes no symptoms in 80 percent of those infected and a typically mild bout of rash, joint pain, fever and red eyes in others, picked up at the end of El Salvador’s rainy season in November last year. The disease is expected to increase again when the rainy season returns in May, giving mosquitoes more places to lay eggs.
In Bethesda, Md. on Friday, the National Institutes of Health announced it is funding research to establish conclusively if Zika causes microcephaly.
The virus is most widespread in Brazil, where an estimated 1.5 million people could be infected. U.S. officials this week suggested that Olympic athletes on Team U.S.A. might consider bailing out of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro because of the danger of Zika infection.
Brazilian soldiers and Salvadoran health workers are going door to door, searching for water-filled containers, tires and the like, the preferred breeding grounds for the Aedes mosquito, which likes to live near people so it can feed on their blood and does not travel more than 300 meters from where it’s born throughout its entire life. The mosquito lives from two weeks to a month, depending on the climate.
Zika is spread by mosquitoes that bite infected humans. It can also be passed sexually, which the world learned last week when officials confirmed that a Texan got the virus from sexual contact with someone infected in Venezuela.
Brazilian scientists also found the virus active in saliva and urine last week, but it’s not yet known if it can be transmitted in those fluids.
As in El Salvador, the majority of Brazilians are Roman Catholic, and the church’s values inform the country’s abortion laws . Abortion is legal in Brazil only if the pregnancy endangers the mother or is caused by rape or if the fetus is anencephalic – missing part of its brain. Illegal abortions can put women in prison for up to three years.
Beatriz Galli, a member of the Bioethics Commission of the Lawyers Bar Association in Rio de Janeiro, said the push for more contraception in Brazil is not enough.
“There needs to be a massive overhaul in national policies: Safe abortion should be a legal option for women. No contraceptive method is 100 percent effective, so abortion availability should be guaranteed as part of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care,” she wrote in a recent article on RH Reality Check, an online publication.
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