In a statement declaring the clusters of birth defects that appear to be linked to Zika virus infection in Brazil “a public health emergency of international concern,” the World Health Organization recommends important measures for tackling this emerging infectious disease threat: improving surveillance, developing better diagnostic tests, intensifying vector control efforts and carrying out other prevention and treatment measures.
More remarkable were calls from public health officials in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica for women to postpone pregnancy until more is known about the association between the Zika virus and microcephaly, a severe birth defect affecting the brains of newborns. Salvadoran health officials have even advised women to delay pregnancy until 2018, when the risk of being infected with Zika may be lower.
The spread of Zika in the Americas adds urgency to the need to help all women — and their male partners — avoid unintended pregnancies. But, women and couples in countries affected by Zika face formidable barriers to achieving their fertility intentions, including lack of access to contraceptives and other reproductive health services, some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws and high rates of sexual violence.
Placing the burden of protecting unborn children from the virus’ effects solely on women who have limited reproductive rights and contraceptive options is discriminatory and unsustainable. Expanding access to reproductive health services must be part of a comprehensive response to the Zika virus, and these services should be supported in ways that protect and strengthen the reproductive rights of women and girls.