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UN urges review of abortion, birth control access in wake of Zika

© Christophe Simon, AFP | The Zika virus can cause congenital defects in babies
3 min

The top UN human rights official called on Friday for countries with the Zika virus to make available sexual and reproductive health counselling to women and uphold their right to terminate pregnancies.


“Laws and policies that restrict her access to these services must be urgently reviewed in line with human rights obligations in order to ensure the right to health for all in practice,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.

The virus has been linked to microcephaly, a condition that leads to babies being born with small heads and birth defects, and the outbreak has been most serious in Latin America. Thousands of children in Brazil have been born with shrunken heads in the past year - a birth defect that some research suggests could result from Zika infection.

In some Catholic Latin American countries, abortion remains a taboo subject. In Brazil, for example, abortion is permitted in few circumstances -- until 2012 it was only allowed in the event of rape or if the mother's life was in danger.

Al Hussein’s spokeswoman, Cecile Pouilly, asked about countries such as El Salvador that criminalise abortion, told a news briefing: “That’s why we are asking those governments to go back and change those laws because how can they ask these women not to become pregnant? But also not offer them first information that is available but also the possibility to stop their pregnancies if they wish so.”

abortion rights zika

'Condoms or refrain from sex'

US health authorities on Friday urged people to use condoms or refrain from sex if they live in or have traveled to areas where the Zika virus is circulating.

The new interim guidelines from the US Centers from Disease Control are aimed at pregnant women and their partners, and those of childbearing age who are concerned about Zika, a primarily mosquito-borne virus which has been linked to birth defects.

Earlier this week, US health officials confirmed the first case of sexually-transmitted Zika, involving a person who had traveled to Venezuela and infected a sexual partner in Texas upon return.

Meanwhile in Brazil, the nation's top research institute said that Zika has been detected in urine and saliva, but added that there was no proof the virus could be transmitted through those fluids.

The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a global emergency on Monday. Declaring a global emergency is akin to an international SOS signal and usually brings more money and action to address an outbreak. The last such emergency was announced over the 2014 devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa which killed 11,000 people; polio was declared a similar emergency the year before.

WHO estimates that there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.


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