Abortion Requests Double After Zika Warnings in Brazil

zika virus, zika, virus
This digitally-colorized image shows particles of Zika virus, which is a member of the family Flaviviridae. The virus particles are colored blue in the picture. They are 40 nanometers (0.00004 millimeters) in diameter. (Image credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith)

Requests for abortions in some Latin American countries have doubled since health officials began issuing warnings about the link between Zika virus and birth defects, according to a new report.

The report authors analyzed information from a nonprofit organization called Women on Web, which provides access to abortion medications (using telemedicine) in countries where safe abortions are illegal or highly restricted, including many Latin American countries.

The researchers looked at requests for abortions before and after Nov. 17, 2015, when the Pan American Health Organization, which is part of the United Nations, issued an alert about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly, a birth defect in which a baby's head is abnormally small. After this date, several Latin American countries also issued their own health warnings advising women to avoid pregnancy.

The researchers found that requests for abortions increased in nine Latin American countries: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Honduras, Venezuela, Argentina and Peru. In all of these nations, access to abortions is restricted, and in most (except Argentina and Peru), health officials had issued national warnings about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly, the researchers said. [5 Things to Know About Zika Virus]

In these nine countries, the increases in abortion requests ranged from 20 to 108 percent. The increase was biggest in Brazil, where there were 1,210 requests for abortions between late November 2015 and early March 2016. That's more than double the 581 requests that researchers would have expected in that time period, based on trends in abortion requests from before November 2015.

Requests for abortions also nearly doubled in Ecuador, from an expected 34 to 71 requests between late November 2015 and early March 2016.

"Our data provide a window on how concern about Zika virus infection may have affected the lives of pregnant women in Latin America," the researchers, from the University of Texas at Austin, Women on Web, Princeton University in New Jersey and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, wrote in their report published today (June 22) in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers note that they cannot prove for certain that concern about the Zika virus caused the increase in abortion requests. However, the investigators found that countries with the biggest increases in requests for abortions also tended to have a greater percentage of women who cited the Zika virus as the reason for their abortions.

The new report could also underestimate the increase in abortions, because some women may have used unsafe abortion methods or gained access to abortion drugs through the black market, rather than through Women on Web, the researchers said.

"Official information and advice about potential exposure to the Zika virus should be accompanied by efforts to ensure that all reproductive choices are safe, legal and accessible," the researchers wrote.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.