In this Jan. 29, 2016 photo, Tainara Lourenco stands in the entrance of her stilt home with her hand on her baby bump, at a slum in Recife, Brazil. Unemployed and five months pregnant, 21-year-old Lourenco lives in a slum at the epicenter of Brazilâs tandem Zika and microcephaly outbreaks, in the state of Pernambuco. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
The Pan American Health Organization criticized several regional governments' call for women to delay getting pregnant due to the spread of the Zika virus, instead calling for expanded access to contraception in Latin America.
"You can't recommend that women not get pregnant. The countries need to inform people of the risks, but the final decision is the woman's alone. It's her right," Suzanne Serruya, director of PAHO's Latin American Center for Perinatology, Women and Reproductive Health, said in an interview with EFE.
Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Honduras, Panama and El Salvador, as well as the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, have urged women not to get pregnant until more is known about the virus.
"We don't know how much longer it will last. What happens if in two years it's worse? That's not the solution. We've got to work to reduce the vector (the Aedes aegypti mosquito) and to ensure women have greater access to contraception," the expert said.
Organizations that defend female reproductive rights also have slammed the regional governments' recommendations for putting off pregnancies, saying the measure wrongly puts the responsibility on women's shoulders without providing them with alternatives.
"It's naive and insufficient. This crisis highlights the big gaps in the region's national policies on sexual education and access to contraception and abortion," Monica Roa, vice president of strategy at Women's Link Worldwide, a non-profit organization that works to promote gender equality around the globe, told EFE.
"What concerns us the most is access to methods of contraception. In all the countries of the region, it's different depending on poverty levels. Access can vary from between 47 percent and 7 percent in different districts and neighborhoods," Serruya said.
Women in low-income areas are doubly vulnerable to the threat of Zika: they have less access to contraception and sexual education and the prevalent standing water in those neighborhoods provides an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.
The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads Chikungunya and dengue fever.
Though the illness is rarely deadly, a major Zika outbreak in Brazil has been connected to a sharp increase in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.