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Telling Women in Zika-Affected Countries to Not Get Pregnant Is Unfair, UN Points Out

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that a better response to the virus — and the evidence that it is linked to birth abnormalities — would be to improve access to contraception, maternal care, and safe abortions.

by Alan Hernandez
Feb 5 2016, 10:07pm

Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA

The top human rights official at the United Nations has criticized government officials who have urged women at risk of being infected by the Zika virus not to get pregnant. 

"Clearly, managing the spread of Zika is a major challenge to the governments in Latin America," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement on the risks associated with the mosquito-borne disease that is rapidly spreading through the continent. 

"However, the advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant, ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common."

Related: Here's What You Should Know About the Zika Virus

The presence of Zika in the continent was first noticed in Brazil in May, but the disease caused little concern until October when doctors there linked it to a sudden hike in the number of cases of babies born with abnormally small heads.

The virus has also been associated with the Guillain- Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the nervous system, causing progressive paralysis.

Although these links have not been scientifically proven The World Health Organization — that says the virus is now present in 24 countries — said earlier this week that the evidence was sufficiently strong to warrant declaring a global public health emergency.

So far Latin American governments have responded to the virus primarily by launching campaigns to eradicate the mosquito and recommending people use ample amounts of insect repellent.

Officials in Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic have also called on women to avoid getting pregnant.

Related: Latin America Responds to the Zika Virus With Soldiers, Repellent, and Pregnancy Warnings

Women's rights activists in Latin America have insisted that it would be more appropriate to respond with measures to improve access to contraception as well as relax the region's abortion laws.

Abortion in Brazil is illegal unless a woman is raped or her life is threatened, or in some cases of fetal malformation that do not include microcephaly. 

The feminist group Bioethics Anís is now preparing a case to present to the Brazil's supreme court that specifically seeks to decriminalize abortion in cases of suspected microcephaly. This could be particularly controversial as the abnormality is very hard to detect until late in the pregnancy.

This same group in 2012 managed to lift the ban on abortions in cases of anencephaly, a type of brain malformation in which most of the skull is missing. 

Related: The WHO Just Declared That the Zika Virus Is an International Health Emergency

"Microcephaly is a new thing about which we judges have to think how to act," Judge Jesseri Coelho de Alcantara told the German news agency DPA.

The judge did not rule out that a measure allowing terminations in such cases could be approved in the near future, particularly in cases in which it is clear that the fetus may not survive, or the baby die very soon after birth.

The UN Human Rights Commissioner's statement on Friday actively supported measures to relax laws limiting a woman's control over her pregnancy.

"In Zika-affected countries that have restrictive laws governing women's reproductive rights, the situation facing women and girls is particularly stark," Zeid said, citing restricted access to contraception, maternal health care, and safe abortions. "Laws and policies that restrict her access to these services must be urgently reviewed in line with human rights obligations."

Although Brazil remains the epicenter of the epidemic, concern is growing about the situation in other Latin American countries — particularly Colombia and Venezuela.

Related: Brazil Steps Up Its War Against Zika

The Colombian health authorities said on Friday that 1,900 pregnant women were suspected of being infected with Zika up until the end of January, of a total of 20,297 cases registered around the country. The total number of suspected infections was 16,419 a week before, with 890 involving pregnant women.

Venezuela's Health Minister, Luisana Melo revealed there have been 4,500 cases of suspected infections in the country, and two possibly related deaths of people who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Meanwhile, the number of cases of the virus detected in the United States is also growing, particularly in Florida, though most of these involve people who had travelled to other Zika-affected countries.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has, however, confirmed a likely case of sexual transmission. It occurred in Texas where a patient who had a very low chance of having been bitten by the mosquito that carries Zika, apparently contracted the disease through sex with someone who had recently returned from Venezuela.

Related: 'Sexually Transmitted' Case of Zika Reported in Texas

On Wednesday the CDC updated its Zika guidelines for pregnant women, advising them to protect themselves if their male sexual partner had traveled to or lives in an area where the virus is circulating.

"Until we know more, if your male sexual partner has traveled to or lives in an area with active Zika virus transmission, you should abstain from sex or use condoms the right way every time you have vaginal, anal, and oral sex for the duration of the pregnancy," the report says.

The Brazilian Oswaldo Cruz institute of health said on Friday that it had detected Zika in saliva and urine samples from two patients who had the virus.

"The fact that we detected that the virus has the capacity to cause an infection is not evidence that it can infect other people through these fluids," Myrna Bonaldo, one of the scientists who made the discovery, told reporters.

They also added that at this point more studies are needed to determine whether these fluids can transmit the infection.

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten