In the face of the Zika epidemic the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued new recommendations for individuals at risk of contracting the virus either through mosquito bites or through sexual contact with an infected person. If someone has traveled to an area where Zika is present, the WHO recommends abstinence or consistent condom use for at least eight weeks or up to six months if a partner shows symptoms. (Only 20% of people infected with the virus are symptomatic.) But for women of childbearing age living in areas affected by the virus, the WHO urges them to speak with their health providers about possibly delaying pregnancy, presumably indefinitely. The Zika virus has been linked to devastating birth defects including microcephaly.
After issuing the revised guidelines Nyka Alexander, spokesperson for the WHO, clarified that the purpose of them was not to discourage all at-risk couples from conceiving, but rather to ensure that they consider the Zika virus and its potential impacts on the timing of pregnancy. “Whether and when to become pregnant should be a personal choice made on the basis of information and access to affordable, quality health services,” said Alexander.
For pregnancy to be a personal choice, women and men must have access to the tools, information, and resources they need to prevent, delay, or plan it. Worldwide more than 220 million women want to avoid pregnancy but have an unmet need for reliable, safe contraceptive methods. The Zika virus has brought significant attention to what has been a public health crisis and an ethical tragedy for decades: that despite modern medical advances 85 million women experience unintended pregnancies each year.
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