In response to the recent outbreak of the Zika virus throughout Latin America, health officials in El Salvador have urged women not to get pregnant until 2018 in an effort to combat an increase in a birth defect known as microcephaly, which is suspected to be caused by the mosquito-borne illness.
“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,” said El Salvador’s Deputy Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza.
In a country that is predominantly Roman Catholic, according to the New York Times, the recommendation has been met with heavy criticism from the church, civil groups and many Salvadorans, who question the practicality of suggesting women delay pregnancy. The recommendation is especially ironic in El Salvador, where information and resources for birth control are not widely available as they are in the U.S.
Morena Herrera, president of the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, said the recommendation fails to hold men responsible.
“Women don’t get pregnant alone,” said Herrera, according to BBC. “The access to information and to contraceptives, even though not illegal, is not totally open and many women don’t have enough information. And there are many pregnancies that are a result of violent rape – pregnancies imposed on women where they aren’t making their own decisions.”
The government’s recommendation also implies that pregnancy is voluntary, which draws further criticism from those who point out that over half of pregnancies in Latin America are unplanned.
Latin America has recently erupted with concern over the virus, leading to fumigation efforts across Brazil and government advisories to citizens to not get bitten by the Aedes mosquito, which is known to carry the virus. According to the Washington Post, more than 5,000 suspected Zika cases were reported last year and in the first weeks of 2016. El Salvador is not the only country to recommend delaying pregnancy (Colombia, Ecuador and Jamaica have issues similar statements), but has so far taken the most extreme stance.
When pressed in an interview with the BBC, Espinoza responded that he only meant people should hold off for this year.
“The recommendation is that people plan their pregnancies, that they avoid if at all possible to have babies this year,” said Espinoza. “This is the first time that we have suffered an attack of Zika virus, and the first attack is always the worst.”
“We are giving a recommendation, it’s not prohibition or a birth control measure,” he added. “These children are going to need neurological help for the rest of their lives. They will have to get support and they will change the family dynamic. Nobody wants a child with incapacities so we are recommending people to reflect.”
The link between Zika and microcephaly is based on circumstantial evidence, and has not yet been scientifically confirmed. The Salvadoran government, along with the rest of the countries affected by Zika, are understandably taking precautions to keep women and newborns safe until more is known about the virus and its potential link to microcephaly. And regrettably, the only preventative measure known for microcephaly—aside from mothers avoiding mosquitoes—is to not have babies.
“Some people are calling it the new Ebola,” said San Salvador’s Mayor Nayib Bukele. “I don’t know if it’s the new Ebola but we don’t want to find out.”
Still, it’s important to consider the effect that the unprecedented recommendation for citizens to stop having babies will have on the already frightened public. It raises the question of whether pregnant women who hear of the potential fetal abnormalities will seek abortions, which in El Salvador are criminalized and can lead to decades in jail.
“What happens in a country where abortion is completely illegal?” said Angelica Rivas of Acdatee, a Salvadoran nonprofit that advocates for decriminalization of the procedure, according to New York Post. “What can be expected is an increase in the rates of illegal abortions, unsafe abortions and a mental health issue for women.”
It also brings up the real possibility that women may seek abortions unnecessarily after suspecting they may have contracted the virus; or, even if they have had the virus, have a perfectly healthy fetus. Zika is difficult to diagnose, because for most people, the symptoms are mild or even nonexistent, and its victims are often unaware that they ever even had it.
According to BBC, there have so far been no cases of babies born with microcephaly in El Salvador after their mothers contracted Zika. There are, however, around 100 pregnant women who are under observation. Zika has no known cure, and WHO officials say it may be six to nine months before a link between Zika and microcephaly is confirmed or dismissed.