Real relief for Zika includes family planning
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It’s been nearly five months since the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a public health emergency. While it’s been spreading rapidly in countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, Zika is also afflicting people in the continental United States, with over 800 travel and sexually-transmitted cases confirmed here; a number that is expected to grow in the coming months as mosquito season ramps up. In total, scientists have predicted there will be 3 million to 4 million new Zika infections in the Americas this year.

There is a lot that we still need to learn about the Zika virus, but because we know that some of the effects can last a lifetime, we can’t wait to act. Yet the Senate is set to vote this week on a Zika conference report that lacks the serious response that women need. Unfortunately, the Senate leadership has offered a disappointing response that provides inadequate funds and fails to ensure that women can access the best care they need from the most qualified providers.

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At this time, there is no treatment or vaccine for Zika. But there is a solution that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees can lessen the impact of the outbreak: voluntary family planning. In fact, ensuring access to voluntary family planning is the primary strategy recommended by the CDC to reduce Zika-related pregnancy complications. Meanwhile, millions of women are unable to access adequate sexual and reproductive health care. That’s why it is unacceptable that the Senate conference report on Zika lacks family planning funding. As Congress finally negotiates funding for  a comprehensive response to Zika, family planning must be part of the response, globally and domestically.

To be clear, the ability to decide if and when to have children has been considered basic health care long before this crisis.  For decades, our organizations have worked toward a world where all women, men and young people, no matter where they live or how much money they make, will have access to the information, health care and support necessary to decide to prevent unintended pregnancy, safely end a pregnancy, or carry a pregnancy to term and raise a child. But the fact that countless women around the world do not have this ability is a long-standing public health concern that the Zika crisis makes impossible to ignore.

The virus also takes advantage of existing health disparities: women and families with the least access to health care disproportionately experience the impact of the Zika outbreak.

In Latin America, inequity is enormous across the region, and poor women face real gaps in access to reproductive health care. An estimated 23 million women have an unmet need for contraception. Latin America is also home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, with an estimated 95 percent of all abortions deemed unsafe.

In the U.S., many of the states expected to be most intensely hit by Zika are the very same places where state lawmakers have decimated access to family planning, dismantled access to safe and legal abortion and refused to expand Medicaid coverage. In the last year alone, 24 states have attempted to block nearly 800,000 patients from accessing care at Planned Parenthood and similar providers.  

It’s challenging that too many governments have, only now with the Zika crisis, acknowledged the value of family planning. Sexual and reproductive health care, including contraception, is our first and best weapon against this crisis. If women’s decision-making around pregnancy was recognized in the law, the disaster we face now would be far less severe.

It is time for Congress to take meaningful action to combat Zika. The Senate must prioritize health care, education and contraception, not politics. Let’s put women and families at the center of our Zika response and fund family planning as a part of that relief.

Latanya Mapp Frett is executive director of Planned Parenthood Global. Dr. Hal Lawrence is the executive vice president and CEO of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.