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Abortion pill requests spike in Zika outbreak countries

An Aedes aegypti mosquito is kept in a glass tube at the Fiocruz Institute, which has been screening for mosquitoes naturally infected with the Zika virus in Rio de Janeiro.
An Aedes aegypti mosquito is kept in a glass tube at the Fiocruz Institute, which has been screening for mosquitoes naturally infected with the Zika virus in Rio de Janeiro.Felipe Dana/Associated Press/File 2016

NEW YORK — Online requests for abortion pills spiked dramatically this year in Brazil, Ecuador, and some other Latin American countries that ban abortions, an indication that women may be choosing to end pregnancies rather than risk birth defects stemming from a Zika virus outbreak.

Researchers reported the trend after trying to understand how pregnant women are responding to the threat of Zika-related birth defects in countries where abortion is banned but the government is warning women to avoid pregnancy because of Zika outbreaks.

The study, which was published Wednesday, has some major limitations. Researchers analyzed requests for abortion pills from just one online service, which is not believed to be representative of all the women in any of the nations studied. And the research does not answer how many abortions actually occurred in those countries.

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But it gives a first-of-its-kind look at an issue many have been wondering about. In the United States, the states where Zika outbreaks are considered most likely — like Florida and Texas — are places where abortion restrictions have been increasing and the number of abortion providers shrinking.

‘‘If Zika does begin to transmit locally, you’re looking at situations for [US] women that may not be that different from countries like Brazil or Ecuador,’’ said the lead author, Dr. Abigail Aiken of the University of Texas.

The Zika virus, which is spread mainly by a tropical mosquito, causes only a mild illness, at worst, in most people. But during recent Zika outbreaks in Latin America, scientists determined that infection during pregnancy has led to severe brain-related birth defects.

For every 100 pregnancies involving women infected early in their pregnancy, an estimated 1 to 15 will result in severe birth defects, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.