Preventing Zika-related Birth Defects Through Contraception Access

We’re learning more every day about the effects of Zika. Unfortunately, what we have learned so far is very troubling. A particularly distressing potential outcome of Zika virus infection is related to birth defects.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other leading world public health authorities, Zika virus presents a serious risk for pregnancies. Zika infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly—a severe brain defect causing lifelong disability and $10 million in lifetime costs for infants born with Zika- associated microcephaly. Babies exposed to Zika prenatally have also been born with other birth defects, including eye defects, hearing loss and impaired growth. 

I’ve heard public health colleagues refer to Zika as a catastrophe in slow motion. That’s because the effects of Zika may not be immediately evident—in many cases the damage will not be seen until babies are actually born with birth defects. There may also be other longer-term outcomes that may not be evident at birth.

With Zika virus and pregnancy, there are three primary prevention strategies. One revolves around protecting pregnant women by eliminating mosquitos in the environment and mosquito bite prevention. Another relates to protecting pregnant women from sexual transmission of Zika virus. An additional effective strategy to reduce Zika-related pregnancy complications is to prevent pregnancy in women who choose to delay or avoid pregnancy during the Zika outbreak.

In Puerto Rico, one of the hardest-hit areas for Zika, the situation is especially concerning. On the island, an estimated 65 percent of all pregnancies are unintended, and an estimated 138,000 women of childbearing age are in need of effective contraception and counseling. 

To help with this need, we announced today that the Zika Contraception Access Network (Z-CAN) is now operational. Through this effort, we are working with generous donors and committed partners to provide a full range of contraceptive options free of charge to women wanting to delay or avoid pregnancy at this time.

Donations of funding and contraceptive product commitments have been crucial to reduce program implementation costs, but additional funding is required to fully execute this effort at the speed and scale required for the Zika response. We currently have funding to reach approximately 14,000 women in Puerto Rico. With a goal of $18 million in funding, which is the estimated cost of caring for two infants with microcephaly, this effort could be expanded to serve tens of thousands of more women during the time of Zika. 

At the CDC Foundation, we are extremely grateful to our donors who have stepped forward to help prevent Zika-related birth defects—but we all need to do everything in our power to help prevent Zika from affecting more babies and families. I invite you to unite with us to stop Zika.


Judy Monroe
Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.