Zika Virus: El Salvador Advises Delaying Pregnancy Until 2018; Women's Groups Urge to Lift Abortion ban in the Country

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Jan 25, 2016 04:30 AM EST

El Salvador officials are asking women to hold off getting pregnant until 2018 in reaction to the rising Zika cases in the country. However, some women's groups are urging officials to ease the law on abortion instead.

"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," El Salvador's Deputy Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza said, per Reuters. The agency made its pronouncement following the rise of reported number of Zika cases in January at 5,397.

The agency also believes 96 percent of pregnant women in El Salvador have become vulnerable to the virus. However, so far, there are no reported cases of babies born with microcephaly, a birth defect as a result of the infection.

Civic groups are questioning the government's recommendation, citing that some pregnancies could not be intended and may be unplanned. Some are calling on lifting the ban on abortion. "I think the Zika situation puts the total abortion ban into the national arena," said Astrid Valencia of Amnesty International, via CNN.  

"It's incredibly naive for a government to ask women to postpone getting pregnant," said Monica Roa of Women's Link Worldwide via VOA News. Roa also cited at least half of pregnancies are unplanned, especially when sexual violence is widespread in the South American region.

Gynecologist Dr. Sharlene Kalloo recommended that, on top of screening pregnant women for Zika virus, they "should be given an option as to whether to terminate a pregnancy or not," per Guardian.

The Globe and Mail reported that El Salvador's enforcement of the abortion law is strict, as authorities actively investigate, prosecute and imprison women who terminate their pregnancies. The prison term carries up to 40 years.

However, officials defend their stance. "If we don't make any recommendations to the population, we could have a high incidence of microcephaly," said Espinoza via New York Times. "Of those children, 99 percent will survive, but with limitations in their mental faculties."

Zika virus has no known cure and the mosquito that transmits the disease, the Aedis aegyptia, bites intermittently. Applying insect repellants will help protect against the bites, but the lotion or creams are only effective for certain hours until reapplication.

Symptoms to the infection are mild and may closely resemble the flu but treatments may be administered to treat the fever, headache and body pains. Experts are still doing further studies about the virus, particularly its effect on the baby during the first trimester of pregnancy. Vox reported that the links are still largely unknown at the moment.

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