UN calls for Zika-hit countries to loosen abortion restrictions

UN asks how countries can ask women to avoid pregnancies but not offer ways to end them; Puerto Rico declares emergency

The United Nations human rights agency on Friday called on Zika-affected countries in Latin and South America to loosen any tough laws that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion.

"We are asking those governments to go back and change those laws,” said Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. "Because how can they ask those women [exposed to Zika] not to become pregnant but also not offer them … the possibility to stop their pregnancies if they wish?"

Also on Friday, Puerto Rico's governor declared a health emergency as more Zika-related cases emerge across the U.S. territory. The island has confirmed 22 Zika cases.

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said federal authorities are helping develop an education campaign and prevention strategies. He said the territorial government has also frozen prices on condoms after two known cases of sexual transmission of the virus in Texas.

U.S. health authorities recommended that men who have visited areas with the Zika virus use condoms if they have sex with pregnant women.

Also, Brazilian health officials have announced that the Zika virus had been found in human saliva and urine samples.

Paulo Gadelha, president of the Fiocruz research institute in Brazil, called for pregnant women to take special precautions and suggested they avoid kissing people other than a regular partner or sharing cutlery, glasses and plates with people who have symptoms of the virus. However, it remains unclear if the virus can be spread by saliva and urine.

Zika in pregnant women has been linked to microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with small heads and incomplete brain development. However, that correlation has not been proven conclusively.

Zika outbreaks have occurred in more than 20 countries in South America, the Pacific Islands, and Cape Verde in Africa.

As the rates of infection have spread in recent months, national and international health care agencies are scrambling to answer basic questions about the virus, which is primarily spread by mosquitoes.

"We don’t know a lot about Zika,” Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a conference call on Friday. For instance, she said, “with Zika we don’t know what the attack rate is,” referring to the speed of the spread of the disease.

Garrett also said it is not a matter of if, but when, Zika starts to spread in North America.

“Now it is winter … and the mosquitoes are hibernating,” she said. “We are very anxious about what will happen when the mosquitoes emerge come spring and summer.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new interim guidelines on Friday on preventing sexual transmission of the Zika virus. The United States this week had its first case of a Zika-infected person who had not traveled but who may have caught the virus through sex with someone who had visited a Zika-affected country.

The CDC guidelines call for pregnant women and their male sex partners to discuss the male’s potential exposure and to use condoms or abstain from sex for the duration of the pregnancy. For nonpregnant women, the CDC recommends men using condoms “consistently and correctly,” or abstaining from sex altogether.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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