At least two pregnant Americans have opted for abortions after they were infected with the Zika virus, federal health officials reported Friday.
A total of nine pregnant women have tested positive for the disease, and 10 more pregnant women are suspected to have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All of the women are believed to have contracted the virus while traveling abroad.
The CDC announced for the first time that it has been tracking nine pregnant women in the U.S. whose Zika virus infection has been confirmed. Two of those women suffered miscarriages and two opted for abortions.
Three of those women have since gave birth, one of whom delivered a child with severe microcephaly, a birth condition that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
The information released Friday raises the stakes for federal health officials aggressively trying to understand the Zika virus – and for lawmakers debating whether to approve an emergency spending bill to accelerate those efforts.
It’s also likely to inflame the debate over abortion, particularly as some governments in Central and South American are mulling changes to their own strict laws against abortion to prevent birth defects related to the Zika virus.
Many countries have encouraged women to delay pregnancies during the outbreak – guidance that prompted the United Nations’ human rights arm to encourage those countries to allow women access to contraception and abortion.
Already, leading Republicans – including House Pro-Life Caucus Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (N.J.) – have said women should not be told to consider abortions if they are diagnosed with Zika.
The latest developments come exactly six weeks after the CDC first issued an alert about the virus – showing the quick pace of the epidemic. More than two-dozen countries have reported high cases of the Zika virus.
Health officials in the U.S., including CDC Director Tom Frieden, have reiterated that they cannot yet prove that Zika virus is linked to the “potentially devastating” birth defect. Frieden said Friday, however, that “the evidence towards this is getting stronger by the day.”
Frieden told reporters that there's more they are learning "
“There’s a lot more... [we're] learning over the days, weeks and months,” Frieden told reporters Friday. “We’re literally learning more about Zika every day.”
He added that the CDC does not yet know whether Zika virus poses more risk depending on the length of the pregnancy.
“No one is more impatient than we are to get answers to these questions,” he said.
Frieden reiterated on Friday that the latest outbreak is “extraordinary unusual,” noting that it is the first time that a mosquito-borne infection is linked to a severe birth defect.
He also warned that the mosquitoes that spread Zika are “very hard to get rid of,” and described them as “the cockroach of mosquitoes” because they live indoors and in dark places.
This story was updated at 2:31 p.m.