To Deal With Zika, Just Don’t Get Pregnant, Says El Salvador

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Photo: Geoff du Feu

Now that the federal government has warned women who are pregnant (or actively trying) to avoid countries affected by the Zika virus, many news stories about the virus have focused on the risks to visitors, or speculation about when it will reach the United States. But some people living at the epicenter of the outbreak are being advised to put their lives on hold and delay getting pregnant at all.

The back story: Zika is a mosquito-borne disease that’s been linked to a devastating birth defect known as microcephaly in which babies are born with smaller heads and brains, but the connection hasn’t yet been proven. There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika. Sadly, it can be hard to diagnose microcephaly by ultrasound until the later weeks of the second trimester. Brazil saw 3,500 cases of the defect last year amid some 1.5 million Zika infections and its ministry of health has suggested that women avoid getting pregnant for the time being, though it’s not an official decree.

Other Latin American and Caribbean countries have followed suit, but none of the suggestions are quite so troubling as those of El Salvador. On Thursday its deputy minister of health told Reuters: “We’d like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next.” But El Salvador doesn’t help its citizens plan pregnancy.

Aside from the fact that a two-year wait is arbitrary and there have been zero cases of microcephaly in that country thus far, here are a few pertinent tidbits about the climate of reproductive health in El Salvador:

(1) Abortion is illegal in all circumstances, including rape, incest, and life of the mother.

(2) There is little to no sex ed in schools, and efforts to provide more information (and contraception) have been condemned by the country’s powerful Catholic church.

(3) Sexual violence is pervasive, according to activists.

(4) As a result of the above points, the country has one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in Latin America, with girls ages 10 to 19 accounting for almost a third of all pregnancies in 2013.

Looking at these facts, it’s fair to assume the ministry of health won’t be handing out condoms and birth control by the boatload.