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Reproductive-rights report card fails many states at risk of Zika; CDC sends support staff to aid Fla. backlog on Zika testing

September 15, 2016 — The states where Zika is most likely to spread also have some of the lowest ratings for reproductive health care, according to a new report by the Population Institute, Vox reports.

The Population Institute's report card grades states based on their unintended pregnancy rate, teenage pregnancy rate, requirements for sexuality education, access to emergency contraception and eligibility qualifications for Medicaid, as well as restrictions on and access to abortion care (Crockett, Vox, 9/13).

Background on Zika

The Zika virus is not easily diagnosed, and it does not have a cure or vaccine. It is linked to microcephaly, a sometimes fatal anomaly in which a fetus develops an abnormally small head and brain. The virus is most commonly transmitted by a bite from an infected mosquito, but it can also be spread through sexual activity.

There were more than 16,800 cases in the country as of late August, with Puerto Rico reporting the most cases. Health officials are tracking more than 1,500 pregnant women who have contracted the virus (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/14).

In February, the White House called for $1.9 billion to combat the virus. However, federal lawmakers remain deadlocked on a Zika response measure after liberal lawmakers opposed provisions in one proposal (HR 2577) that would deny Planned Parenthood funds meant to increase access to contraceptives (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/8).

Key findings

The Population Institute's report found that unintended pregnancy is common in many of the states that could be most affected by Zika, including those located in the South and in the Gulf Coast. According to Vox, the finding is particularly significant given Zika's link to fetal anomalies.

For example, the report cited Guttmacher Institute research showing that states such as Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas have an unintended pregnancy rate of between 56 and 62 births per 1,000 reproductive-aged women. According to Vox, the United States' overall unintended pregnancy rate is 45 percent, while the global unintended pregnancy rate is 40 percent.

Overall, the Population Institute gave Texas an "F-" grade, noting that the state was "particularly vulnerable" because of the lingering ramifications of family planning funding cuts and recently overturned abortion restrictions in an omnibus antiabortion-rights law (HB 2). Florida also received an "F" grade for its abortion restrictions, high rate of teenage pregnancy and failure to require comprehensive sexuality education in schools.

According to the report, other states that received failing grades and are vulnerable to Zika include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

The report also identified Zika response efforts in need of funding, including mosquito control efforts, public awareness and education campaigns, and access to contraception and abortion care. Maternal and post-natal health services also require funding, particularly for Zika tests for pregnant women and services for Zika-affected infants.

Bob Walker, president of the Population Institute, said, "It's a cruel irony that the women most at risk of Zika are often the ones with the least access to reproductive health services" (Vox, 9/13).

CDC sends support staff to aid Fla. backlog on Zika testing

In other related news, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) on Wednesday announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are sending additional support personnel to help the state process a backlog of Zika tests for pregnant women, the New York Times reports (Alvarez, New York Times, 9/14).

Earlier this week, Florida officials acknowledged that many pregnant women were facing a weeks-long delay in getting the results of no-cost Zika tests. The delays could complicate health care decisions for pregnant women who test positive for the virus, as the state prohibits abortion care after 24 weeks.

While officials did not disclose the reasons for the delay, providers said it was at least partly driven by a lack of resources, including insufficient staff to assess results. Some providers also expressed concern that the backlog could worsen because pregnant women are advised to get tested for the virus every trimester (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/14).

On Wednesday, Scott said CDC was sending seven additional laboratory technicians to aid Zika test processing. Scott added that he requested additional help from CDC because the seven technicians are unlikely to sufficiently address the backlog.

In addition, Scott said the state's Department of Health has purchased new laboratory equipment to aid testing efforts. According to state officials, as of Wednesday, 2,262 pregnant women had received no-cost Zika testing from the state (New York Times, 9/14).