According to PBS, researchers in the state of Pernambuco, home to a third of Brazil’s suspected cases of infant microcephaly, have reported identifying the most convincing evidence yet of a link between this crippling birth defect and the Zika virus.
After testing the spinal fluid of 12 babies with microcephaly, whose mothers reported symptoms of the Zika virus during their pregnancy, the researchers found signs of Zika in all 12 cases.
“I was so surprised,” explained Marli Tenório, an infectious disease expert at the Aggeu Magalhães Research Center. “Everybody wants to say, ‘It’s not Zika, it’s not Zika.’ I saw this and thought, ‘Wow, it’s Zika!’”
The Zika virus has already spread through 20 countries in the Americas, prompting a strong effort from researchers to hunt down the cause of the surge in macrocephaly, leaving babies with serious birth defects, such as abnormally small heads, underdeveloped brains, and the prospect of lifelong developmental delays.
Health officials in Pernambuco stated that before last year, the state saw at most 12 cases of macrocephaly per year. However, starting in late August, there were dozens of reported cases of babies showing the symptoms, and numbers have now reached into the hundreds.
As of Feb. 3, as many as 4,783 cases of suspected microcephaly have been logged by Brazil’s health authorities.
However, because any child born with a head circumference of less than 32 centimeters is flagged as possibly having microcephaly, many are suspected to be due to other conditions. Of the 1,313 cases investigated by the government, 404 were confirmed to have the birth defect.
These figures still show a surge in the frequency of these cases over previous years, particularly in northeastern Brazil.
In response to these rapidly growing numbers, Think Progress reports that the United Nations has now demanded that Zika-infected countries offer woman access to both abortion and contraception in order to prevent these pregnancies.
While some countries have urged for more insecticides to solve this enormous pest problem, or have encouraged women to simply hold off getting pregnant, UN officials don’t believe these efforts will be enough to attack the root pest problems.
“The advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant, ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
This is not the first time the UN has strongly urged countries to lift restrictive bans on abortion, claiming they’re a breach on human rights treaties.
Part of what may have prompted this particular declaration, was a motion by a judge in Brazil who announced going against the country’s outlawing of abortions by announcing he will allow women to terminate their pregnancy in cases of microcephaly.
“The fears over the Zika virus are giving us a rare opening to challenge the religious fundamentalists who put the lives of thousands of women at risk in Brazil each year to maintain laws belonging in the dark ages,” stated Silvia Camurca, a director of the Brazilian feminist group SOS Corpo.
Many conservative Latin American governments have long suppressed efforts to lift or loosen abortion restrictions, leaving many international women’s health advocates hopeful this announcement could be a driving force in reaching their goal of widened access to birth control.