The World Health Organization is seeking to correct reports that ricocheted around the globe on Thursday indicating that the organization was advising tens of millions of people in Latin and South America to consider delaying pregnancy because of the risks associated with the Zika virus.
In fact, the WHO did not mean to issue any such advice.
William Perea, the WHO official who is coordinating global health guidance on the Zika outbreak, told STAT on Friday that the agency is not trying to push people in Zika-affected countries towards any one choice regarding pregnancy. Instead, he said, the WHO wanted to make it clear that women and men living in places where the virus is spreading should be fully informed about all of their options and the risks they entail.
“WHO doesn’t want to make any of those options any more important than the other,” said Perea. “Delaying pregnancy is among them, obviously, but it’s not the only one.”
The confusion arose because of a recent update to the global health agency’s guidance on preventing sexual spread of Zika. “Men and women of reproductive age living in affected areas should be informed and orientated to consider delaying pregnancy,” the guidance stated.
Numerous news outlets around the world, STAT among them, interpreted that to mean the WHO was now taking a step it had previously declined to take. When asked earlier in the spring about whether people should be counseled to delay pregnancy, WHO officials said decisions about when to get pregnant were complicated personal matters.
Perea said the WHO is aware that the updated guidance has been widely misinterpreted and is trying to figure out what to do to address the misunderstanding.
“We understand that the way it’s phrased, it can be misinterpreted,” he said.
Some babies born to mothers infected with Zika during pregnancy have been found to have a host of birth defects, including microcephaly, a condition in which newborns have abnormally small heads and sometimes underdeveloped brains.
Studies have suggested that 1 in 100 women infected in pregnancy might have a child with microcephaly — though one paper said the figure might be as high as 13 percent.
And another study suggested about 29 percent of women infected during pregnancy may give birth to an infant with brain-related birth defects. Some babies have been born with visual and-or hearing impairments. Others have scarring in their brains — a sign of brain tissue death — or are missing parts of their brains.