Double Trouble: The Trouble with Zika

At long last, Congress may be on the verge of passing a Zika funding bill, but the fight to control Zika is far from over. The funding measure now under consideration in Congress will fall far short — about 40 percent short — of what the President requested, but that’s only half the story. That’s because Zika is a reproductive health challenge and the measure now being considered in Congress will do little to close gaps in reproductive health services. Even worse, the U.S. House of Representatives is threatening to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, Title X, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and comprehensive sex education in the schools.

Because of the sexual transmission of Zika and the risk of birth defects in Zika-infected babies, it would be a critical oversight to ignore the reproductive health risks posed by Zika.

A new report by Population Institute, Double Trouble, shows that there is a dangerous overlap in the U.S. between states potentially affected by Zika and states ranking low on reproductive health and rights. In these states, women — particularly low-income women — may have more limited access to family planning clinics and abortion services than women in other parts of the country. Florida, Texas, and other states in the Gulf region, where Zika likely poses the greatest threat, received poor or failing grades in the Population Institute’s annual 50-State Report Card on Reproductive Health and Rights, which was released in January of 2016:

The Institute’s report also identifies countries and Zika-affected areas in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, where access to reproductive health or abortion services are limited or severely restricted.

It’s a cruel irony that the women most at risk of Zika are often the ones with the least access to reproductive health services. Unless Congress fully funds the president’s Zika request, millions of women and their families could be put in jeopardy. And even with full funding of the Zika package, more needs to be done.

Women in Zika-affected areas require access to a full range of family planning and reproductive health services in order to avoid unintended pregnancies and sexual transmission of the virus, but the level and quality of access to those services varies widely across the U.S. and Latin America. The Population Institute’s report contains several maps highlighting the dangerous overlap between Zika-threatened areas and areas where women may have limited access to family planning and reproductive health services.

Access to reproductive health services in the U.S. can differ widely depending on where you live because of restrictive state laws and inadequate levels of public funding. Many southern States, including Florida and Texas receiving poor or failing grades in the Population Institute’s 2016 50-State Report Card on Reproductive Health and Rights and are in the region more likely to be affected by a mosquito-borne outbreak of the Zika virus. The report card takes into consideration a number of key measures including teenage pregnancy rate, unintended pregnancy rate, sex education requirements, access to emergency contraception, Medicaid eligibility rules, and abortion restrictions and access.

Rates of unintended pregnancy are generally higher in those states most likely to be impacted by Zika. While the global average for unintended pregnancy is 40%, the unintended pregnancy rate in southern states is significantly higher: Florida 58%, Georgia 57%, Alabama 48%, Mississippi 57%, Louisiana 57%, Texas 56%, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The threat posed by Zika is double trouble. The Institute’s report underscores the vital importance of boosting Congressional and other funding for the fight against Zika, and an equally critical need to improve access to reproductive health services in areas threatened by Zika.

— Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute