The Zika epidemic has resulted in a huge increase in requests for abortion help among countries where the practice is currently banned or restricted, a new study found.

In the United States as well as in other Western countries, many women whose fetuses were detected to have birth defects opted to undergo abortions.

However, millions of women who live in the Caribbean and Latin American countries have several problems. First, the mosquitoes could be carrying the virus unchecked. Second, many of these countries have limited or restricted access to birth control and abortions.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin analyzed how the Zika epidemic is changing the abortions requests in these countries. They sought the help of Women on Web (WoW), a group that provides abortion pills to women who live in countries where abortion is currently illegal. WoW provides the abortion pills via speedboats, drones and other means.

They analyzed the abortion requests documented from January 1, 2010 to March 2, 2016 across 19 countries in Latin American with local Zika transmissions. They compared the data to those of Uruguay, Chile and Poland, three countries without local transmissions of the virus. The women were specifically asked if their abortion requests had anything to do with the Zika infection.

The researchers found a staggering increase in the abortion requests — 36 percent to 108 percent — in countries with Zika outbreaks, legal abortion restrictions and national advisories to women about the epidemic.

These countries included Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Peru and Venezuela.

They found no notable increases in abortion requests in countries with local Zika outbreak but without advisories as well as in countries where the virus is not transmitting.

The researchers found the biggest increase in Brazil. From late November 2015 to early this March, there were 1,210 abortion requests. The team expected only about 581 requests based on abortions trends from before November 2015. During the same period, the abortion requests in Ecuador also doubled from a mere 34 to 71.

The team, which comprised of researchers from WoW, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Cambridge and the Princeton University, said that findings showed how concerns on Zika infection have affected the lives of pregnant women living in Latin America.

"Official information and advice about potential exposure to the Zika virus should be accompanied by efforts to ensure that all reproductive choices are safe, legal and accessible," the researchers wrote.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus can cause several birth defects and neurological disorders including microcephaly and Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). Health officials have repeatedly cautioned women to delay pregnancy if they live in regions where the Zika virus is locally transmitting. Officials also warned pregnant women to avoid traveling to Zika-affected areas.

The world's first Zika vaccine will start clinical trials in the next few weeks. To date, there is no cure that can reverse the damage inflicted on fetuses. The best people can do is to avoid the bites of infected Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are the main transmitters of the Zika virus.

The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on June 22.

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