Commentary Contraception

Zika Threat Shows Urgent Need for Better Contraceptive Access

Julie Rabinovitz

As summer approaches and global officials continue to issue warnings about Zika, U.S. federal and state officials can allocate funds and expand insurance coverage to ensure contraceptive access.

Pressure is mounting on Congress to send President Obama a sufficient spending bill to combat the Zika virus’ spread.

The House and Senate recently passed their own measures, both proposing less than the $1.9 billion the president requested. But now they must work out their differences for the sake of our public health. Currently, none of these proposals include funding for Title X, the federal program that provides low-income people with family planning services, birth control, and other preventive reproductive health services. With the potentially life-changing outcomes that can result from contracting Zika, federal and state action is urgently needed to support prevention efforts and increase access to the full range of contraception available nationwide.

There’s no time to waste. More than 600 people in the continental United States, including at least 150 pregnant women, have already been infected with Zika. This month, a New Jersey infant exposed to Zika was born with the birth defect microcephaly, where a baby’s head is smaller than expected. Many more Americans have been affected in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. Local transmission is expected to spike as warmer weather approaches and climate conditions become more favorable to the virus’s primary vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported significant evidence showing links between Zika and adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes, including miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal abnormalities. Brain damage in Zika-infected babies is proving to be far worse than doctors initially thought. Zika has been found to attack lobes of the fetal brain that control thought, vision, and movement. Exposure to Zika was first considered to be a threat for women in the first trimester only, but there is growing concern about the possibility of maternal-fetal transmission throughout pregnancy.

It has also been discovered that men infected with Zika can transmit the virus to their sexual partners through semen, where the virus is stored much longer than in the blood.

As more individuals learn about the potential health risks linked to the virus, many will want and need services and information to help them effectively avoid or postpone pregnancy. Extensive research already shows the public health value and taxpayer savings associated with preventing unintended pregnancy.

Now with Zika, the stakes are even higher.

Congressional leaders must act without delay to pass a comprehensive Zika funding and preparedness package that includes additional resources for Title X to expand access to reliable birth control, related services, and counseling to low-income and uninsured people. Increased funding for these essential services is needed on the ground now, especially in regions expected to be disproportionately affected by the virus. The threat is particularly worrisome in areas that experience the warmer weather that’s conducive to Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

On the state level, elected leaders across the country should require public and commercial health plans to cover all—not just some—FDA-approved birth control. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), California was one of the first states to approve a contraceptive-coverage equity law that codified the spirit of the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, also known as the birth control benefit, by requiring health plans to cover all methods of contraception without cost sharing or restrictions. Maryland recently enacted a similar measure that also requires coverage for vasectomies, and several other states are considering legislation with the same intent. The Zika threat makes passage of these kinds of laws across the country time-sensitive. State Medicaid programs must also adopt reimbursement and coverage policies that break down barriers enrollees may face in accessing the full range of effective contraceptive methods.

Patients must be able to get the method they can use safely and consistently. That means health-care professionals across the country, including those in primary-care settings, must offer all forms of available birth control. Providers need training to support their patients in accessing the contraceptive method that is best suited for their health and reproductive life goals. Even some OB-GYNs can use training on newer methods and updated best practices.

Many unknowns remain regarding the Zika virus, which has quickly become one of the world’s greatest public health challenges. But a concerted and proactive response—that includes improved access to contraception—must be implemented before Zika becomes a national public health crisis here in the United States.

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