Demand for the abortion pill spiked in the seven Latin American countries currently suffering from Zika outbreaks, following warnings issued last year that the virus causes birth defects.
The study—published by the New England Journal of Medicine in conjunction with the non-profit Women on Web, which provides access to the abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol in regions where doctor-administered abortions are not available—found that orders from women in Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela doubled following a 2015 alert from the Pan American Health Organization that Zika causes birth defects.
Demand in Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras increased from 36 percent to 76 percent over the same time period. From the study:
Our approach may underestimate the effect of the advisories on demand for abortion, since many women may have used an unsafe method, accessed misoprostol from local pharmacies or the black market, or visited local underground providers. But accurate data on these choices are difficult to obtain. Thus, our data provide a window on how concern about Zika virus infection may have affected the lives of pregnant women in Latin America.
The percentage-increase may be impressive, but the actual number of women acquiring the pill from WoW remains relatively small: The New York Times puts the figure at slightly more than 2,300 in the region, with only 1,600 in countries where warnings about Zika’s devastating effects were issued.
Gilda Sedgh, the principal research scientist at the reproductive health research organization Guttmacher Institute, told the paper that the increase “could be spurious because Women on Web accounts for a small share of all abortions in that part of the world.”
A separate recent study (login required) found that there are around 6.5 million abortions performed in Latin American and the Caribbean each year, and majority of them are illegal. An estimated 750,000 women per year are treated for complications brought about by unsafe abortions.
Emails sent to WoW from desperate women are nothing short of heartbreaking:
“I contracted Zika 4 days ago,” wrote one woman from Venezuela. “I love children. But I don’t believe it is a wise decision to keep a baby who will suffer. I need an abortion. I don’t know who to turn to. Please help me ASAP!” Another, from Colombia, wrote:
“Here Zika is a major problem and the health authorities do not help with it … I have no resources at this time and want to ask for your help because fear overwhelms me. What if the baby is born sick?”
The World Health Organization predicts that as many as 4 million people across the Americas will contract Zika through early 2017, and that its spread to other abortion-restrictive countries is inevitable.
Image via Getty.