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The rapid spread of the Zika virus has raised concern among public health officials across the Americas. The World Health Organization warned Sunday that the virus is likely to spread further across the region.

A woman walks away from her apartment as health workers fumigates the Altos del Cerro neighborhood as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Soyapango, El Salvador January 21, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

At first glance, the virus is not notably different from diseases such as yellow fever, chikungunya, or Dengue – all transmitted by the same Aedes mosquito. In one out of five affected people, it causes a mild fever, headaches, and chills. It may also be linked to a paralysis related to Guillain-Barré syndrome. But Brazilian doctors have noticed more and more cases of a congenital birth defect called microcephaly – in which the brain and head are underdeveloped. Zika virus is possibly linked to the birth of thousands of babies with this condition in Brazil.

Countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Jamaica have recommended that women delay pregnancy. El Salvador has asked women to delay pregnancy until 2018.

Calling on women to delay their pregnancy might be prudent. But many women and girls in the region don’t have control over when they get pregnant. Take El Salvador – a country with highly restrictive laws governing women’s reproductive rights – and high rates of sexual violence.  Of women who are married or in unions and of childbearing age, 72 percent currently use some form of contraceptive, and 11 percent report an unmet need for contraception. And that doesn’t reflect the probably much higher unmet need among other women and girls.  Rates of contraception use would have to increase dramatically for the government’s recommendation to become a reality, but for many women and girls, delaying pregnancy for two years will simply be impossible in the current context.

Controlling Zika’s spread is an urgent priority for countries in the region and will require a range of measures including swift steps to control the spread of the mosquito that transmits the disease. But this crisis is also a reminder that public health problems often cannot be tackled effectively in an environment in which women are not empowered to take charge of their own health needs and access the services they require. While telling women not to get pregnant may be important advice, until women and girls can realize their right to get safe and legal comprehensive reproductive health care to manage when they become – and remain – pregnant, it’s not a very practical solution.

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