Zika Virus and Unborn Children

By Marie Smith

Editor’s note. This appeared at the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues.

zika-virusreA mosquito-borne illness–Zika virus–is spreading rapidly in South and Central America and the Caribbean and has appeared in the U.S. and Europe in individuals who have traveled to an affected country. The Zika virus is spread in the Americas by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which also carries dengue fever and yellow fever.

While the Zika virus causes mild symptoms that include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes the real concern is for women who are pregnant or who may soon become pregnant. There is speculation that the virus is linked to development of microcephaly in unborn children–a disorder where an unborn baby has an abnormally small head and incomplete brain development–but the Zika virus has not been proven to cause the disorder.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued travel advisories for affected countries.

Women of child-bearing age living in or traveling to affected areas are advised to protect themselves from mosquitoes bites; the mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus are aggressive daytime biters and live both indoors and outdoors. The World Health Organization (WHO) is predicting that as many as 4 million people could be affected.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has called an emergency meeting for February 1 stating that the virus which has been reported in 23 countries and territories and has gone from a mild threat to one of “alarming proportions” since it is linked, but not yet established, to birth malformations. Chan said, “We are not going to wait for the science to tell us there is a link (with birth defects). We need to take actions now.” There is currently no vaccine or treatment for the virus.

Governments of impacted countries are taking action to destroy the mosquito and its breeding grounds while urging pregnant women and women of child-bearing age to take extra measures to protect themselves and their unborn children by covering arms and legs and sleeping under mosquito netting. A few governments have gone as far as suggesting women delay pregnancy.

CDC has also developed Interim Guidelines for Pregnant Women During a Zika Virus Outbreak for use by health care providers in the US. It is recommended that pregnant women who have traveled to affected countries and test positive for Zika be treated by a maternal-fetal medicine or infectious disease specialist with expertise in pregnancy management.

The guidelines state in regards to microcephaly and the over 4,000 cases reported in Brazil, primarily from one region:

“However, it is not known how many of the microcephaly cases are associated with Zika virus infection. Studies are under way to investigate the association of Zika virus infection and microcephaly, including the role of other contributory factors (e.g., prior or concurrent infection with other organisms, nutrition, and environment). The full spectrum of outcomes that might be associated with Zika virus infections during pregnancy is unknown and requires further investigation.”

The outbreak is being used by pro-abortion organizations that seek the legal expansion of abortion in countries throughout the region, the majority of which prohibit or tightly restrict abortion. The Center for Reproductive Rights’ Latin America specialist stated in regards to El Salvador, which has constitutional protection of unborn children, “This is a huge opportunity for the anti-abortion law to be reformed.”

PNCI believes that the current health crisis should be used to help women obtain the critical maternal health care they need and deserve for themselves and their precious children.