Zika: Durbin, Senators Stress Importance of Women's Access to Reproductive Health Care in Light of Spreading Virus
Senators: Our government has a crucial role to play in ensuring that women everywhere have access to critical health care services
SPRINGFIELD—Today, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) joined a broad coalition of 31 Senators in sending a letter to Senate Republican leaders emphasizing the importance of prioritizing women’s access to reproductive health care in light of the spreading Zika virus.
“The recent and alarming spread of the Zika virus poses a serious threat to pregnant women and their children,” the Senators wrote. “We write to urge you to join us in our longstanding support of increasing access to reproductive health care, including contraceptives, for women who choose to use them, world-wide.”
Local transmission of the Zika virus has been reported in 27 countries and 3 U.S. territories. It is anticipated that the outbreak could infect up to 4 million people in the Americas, including in the United States. When contracted by pregnant women, medical experts suspect the virus is linked to a serious birth defect known as “microcephaly,” and the World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared these Zika-linked birth defects a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”
The Senators’ letter calls for additional funding for agencies that support the delivery of maternal and child health services, as well as reproductive health care. It highlights the importance of family planning and contraception in Zika-affected countries, and emphasizes the need to address health inequities and ensure that women and children receive the care they need in light of this growing public health threat.
Cosigners include Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Chris Coons (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Al Franken (D-MN), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
See below for full text of the letter.
Dear Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell:
The recent and alarming spread of the Zika virus poses a serious threat to pregnant women and their children. We write to urge you to join us in our longstanding support of increasing access to reproductive health care, including contraceptives, for women who choose to use them, worldwide.
When contracted by pregnant women, the virus has been linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared these Zika-linked birth defects a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In the Americas alone, the outbreak could infect up to 4 million people, and local transmission of the virus has been reported in 27 countries and 3 U.S. territories. Fifty-two travel-related Zika infections have been reported in 16 states and the District of Columbia, and last week, Dallas, Texas, health officials announced a case of the virus that had been sexually transmitted by a returning traveler, the first known case of the virus being acquired within the continental United States. Our government has a critical role to play in addressing health inequities for women in Zika-affected countries, including here at home, and in ensuring that women everywhere have access to critical health care services.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health authorities have issued travel guidance to women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant to delay travel to impacted areas and, if they must travel, to take steps to prevent mosquito bites. In some impacted areas, women are being told to delay pregnancies; for example, the Minister of Health in El Salvador told women to delay pregnancy until 2018. Advising women to delay pregnancy is especially problematic since, as Human Rights Watch has documented, women in these regions have limited access to birth control and reproductive health care. According to multiple experts, including the CDC, the Pan American Health Organization, and the WHO, women in many Zika-affected countries experience high rates of sexual violence and experience other barriers to accessing basic health care services. Furthermore, in the impacted 18 Latin American countries and the Caribbean, the contraceptive prevalence rate, which measures access to contraceptives, in some countries is very low (in the 30 percent range). In contrast, the United States’ contraceptive prevalence rate is 76 percent. This means that women in countries most impacted by Zika are more likely to be at risk of bearing children with Zika-linked birth defects because of where they live and less likely to have access to contraception services. It is readily apparent that directives from health authorities regarding delaying pregnancy fail to take into account the actual ability of women in these countries to choose the timing of their pregnancies. The United States must act to provide the assistance necessary to minimize the potentially devastating effects of the virus worldwide, and this response must include family planning resources.
It is imperative that any global response to the Zika virus must include a robust and focused effort on expanding access to women’s health care services. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the U.S. Agency on International Development (USAID), the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the CDC collectively work to increase access to family planning services, reduce maternal and infant mortality, prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, and provide support for communities in need of aid. These agencies and programs will play a critical role in helping women under the duress of Zika, as they are focused on ensuring that pregnant women in many affected areas have access to comprehensive prenatal care and to contraceptive services so they may choose the timing of their pregnancies. The ability to choose the timing of a pregnancy is a critical right for women, especially at this juncture. It is imperative that we support and promote these agencies and programs as they support women both in the U.S. and across the globe during this public health crisis.
Zika’s disproportionate impact on pregnant women and their infants highlights the need for reproductive health and family planning to be included in public health efforts. We urge you to recognize the true nature of this public health emergency and work with us to improve women’s access to contraceptives and other basic public health needs by supporting
- increased funding and support for UNFPA, PEPFAR, USAID, and CDC, to work on maternal and child health and access to reproductive health care services, including family planning, in Zika-impacted areas; and
- increased funding for domestic women’s health programs, such as the Title X clinics, CDC and the Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Program, along with other valuable programs that provide critical access to birth control, counseling and education.
Now is the time to bolster women’s access to family planning services to support women in Zika-impacted countries and here in the United States as part of immediate preventive measures. This effort must accompany increased research to better understand the Zika virus and its link to birth defects, and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines to prevent future outbreaks. By taking action now, we can make significant progress toward mitigating the impact of the Zika virus abroad and preventing the spread of the virus’ harm to women and their families.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
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