Living in the U.S., it’s hard to imagine how pesky mosquitos that leave itchy welts after a night by the campfire can also cause great suffering and death. But that’s the case for much of the world.
According to the World Health Organization, the mosquito-borne illnesses of malaria, dengue and yellow fever alone cause several million deaths each year. Malaria is a concern in more than 90 countries, affecting 40 percent of the world’s population.
Thanks in part to the 2016 Rio Olympics, the latest headline-grabbing disease is the mosquito-borne virus known as Zika. The most recent major outbreak began in Brazil in 2015 and has since spread to other parts of the world, particularly the Western Hemisphere. The concern surrounding Zika involves its impact on pregnant women and the risk of a rare condition called microcephaly in unborn babies.
Microcephaly is a neurological defect wherein a baby’s brain does not develop fully, resulting in a smaller-than-normal-sized head. The Zika virus can also lead to stillbirth and miscarriage.
With the increased panic about Zika comes a corresponding increase in discussions about abortion as a response.
David Hager, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology and a member of the board of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council, says popular thinking goes something like this: “If you get pregnant, you’re going to have a baby, and you’re going to be infected, and you’re going to have a baby with microcephaly.”
Dr. Hager insists that this notion isn’t always true. “There’s a risk. But there are precautions that can be taken rather than going to pregnancy termination after the fact.”
Previously limited to international travelers, Zika is now a threat to women living in the United States — particularly in southern Florida. Other Gulf Coast states, such as Texas and Louisiana, are now at risk, too. Yet Brazil remains the epidemic epicenter.
“At our practice we verbally screen for travel every pregnant woman, and we advise our patients if you’re going to travel in Central and South America, you need to plan on postponing pregnancy at least six months until after you return,” Hager says. “What we try to do is offer precautions rather than create panic. A lot of what has happened in Central and South America is based on panic.”
What has sprung from the resulting alarm about Zika, particularly in countries where abortion is illegal, is a rise in obtaining pills online that cause abortion. One group leading this effort is the organization Women on Web, which has responded to the health crisis by offering medical abortions to pregnant women with Zika.
According to Women on Web’s website, pregnant women who provide evidence of a Zika infection will be sent medical abortion pills for free. The organization also claims that the Brazilian government is stopping delivery of all packages that contain the pills.
The New England Journal of Medicine reports that requests for abortion pills from women in Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela have increased dramatically as the Zika virus spreads. And pro-abortion advocates are using the health crisis as an opportunity to push for lifting restrictions in South American countries where the practice is illegal.
Yet obtaining abortifacients online is not the solution, Hager says.
“For one, women aren’t screened firsthand,” he says. “And even if they are screened in a secondhand manner with questioning, adverse consequences can occur from the medications.” This is especially true if a person has amedical condition that indicates it’s not warranted or could even be harmful.
“And then, if a woman does not miscarry — which can happen 6 percent to 10 percent of the time according to certain studies – she is forced to seek
a medical care in a country where abortion is illegal.”
Hager says only a small number of women in these countries can access the internet and know how to obtain medication to terminate pregnancy. But he also acknowledges that for many women, news on the street is a cause of worry and grave concern.
“Let’s say I’m pregnant, I’ve been bitten by a mosquito, and now I have a rash, conjunctivitis and a low-grade fever, and I have no access to ultrasound,” Hager says. “Most of these women have barely enough money to feed two children, and now they’re faced with the prospect of giving birth to child with a disability. That’s obvious cause for great anxiety.”
Hager says it’s critical to make portable ultrasound equipment available in underdeveloped areas to help reassure women that their babies are OK. Additional needs include providing for mosquito control, water purification and the widespread use of insect repellents.
It’s also critical to note that not every mother and child respond to the virus the same way.
“If you take 100 Brazilian woman who are pregnant and who know they have been bitten by the mosquito and have been infected with Zika,” Hager says, “and they choose to terminate those pregnancies, from what we know right now a significant majority will likely be destroying healthy babies.”
Hager urges Christians to pray for these women — that they’ll use good judgement, make wise decisions about conceiving and use the methods available to them by the government to prevent infection.
“There are ways to spiritually intervene and intercede for these nations,” he says, “just as we would give money for missions.”
For updated information about Zika and its effects, visit www.cdc.gov/zika.