Hope may be on the way for pregnant woman infected with Zika in South America. The virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and has been linked to the serious birth defect microcephaly, has spread explosively throughout the region and, thanks to the region’s typically-draconian restrictions on contraception and abortion, has put women of childbearing age in a terrible predicament. Now Women on Waves, an organization which uses ships to offer safe abortion services outside the territorial waters of countries where the procedure is restricted or forbidden, has announced that they will begin serving areas affected by Zika.
As the virus has run rampant over the region, health officials in El Salvador, Colombia, and Ecuador have not offered much help other than to instruct pregnant women to use insect repellent to avoid bites and to urge all women to avoid pregnancy for the next several years. The problem, however, is that bug spray is often too expensive for much of the population to afford, access to contraception is minimal, and abortion is either totally illegal (as is the case in El Salvador) or only permitted in specific cases during very early pregnancy. There is considerable concern that those who become pregnant may instead try to access dangerous illegal abortions out of desperation.
Women on Waves is aiming to give them a safe, legal alternative. They will provide medical abortions to pregnant women who have Zika in Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Guadeloupe, Paraguay, Venezuela, Argentina, Surinam, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Eligible women must be less than 9 weeks pregnant and are required to fill out an online application to receive the abortifacient drugs. The group has said getting a shipment of the medicine to patients can take between one and five weeks, meaning it will require a woman who discovers she’s pregnant to act very quickly to receive help in time.
While this plan sounds good in theory and may well help a certain fraction of affected women, it’s hard to know how far-reaching the effort will ultimately be. In an area where much of the population may not have access to the internet or diagnostic testing, getting large numbers of people to participate in a time-sensitive situation could be challenging. Moreover, Women on Waves aims to provide services across several countries, constituting a huge geographical area that is perhaps too large for one ship to cover effectively. While it’s certainly better than nothing, it’s difficult to see how this situation can improve without governments in the region taking steps to offer broader access to affordable contraception and safe abortions.