Zika and Access to Reproductive Health Services in Brazil

Twice a year students in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health write blog postings as part of the course “Social and Behavioral Foundations of Primary Health Care.” We often share blog posts that relate to tropical health issues.  Below is a posting by class members Linda Cho, Linda Chyr, Rebecca Earnest, and Sarah Rosenberg on Zika, family planning, and reproductive health in Brazil.


In the 1960s, the Brazilian government adopted a laissez-faire attitude, which lead to the predominance of private organizations in the provision of family planning services. Since then, Brazil has witnessed one of the most dramatic reductions in family size in modern history in part due to increased access to family planning services. (Photo New York Times: Members of the Union of Mothers of Angels.)

However, in early 2015, the widespread epidemic of the Zika fever caused by the Zika virus in Brazil caused persisting gaps in access to contraception to resurface. Since it was first detected it has instilled fear and uncertainty in pregnant women whose fetuses could be at risk of Zika-related birth defects like microcephaly should the virus be contracted during pregnancy. This makes access to comprehensive reproductive health services and education a critical need for women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant.

While contraceptive use is fairly high in Brazil with 75.2% of women using modern forms of contraception, barriers to access remain. Some women face challenges, some of which include but are not limited to incomplete insurance coverage or lack of reimbursement for long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), high up-front costs, low number of contraceptive service sites, and/or a lack of supply of the implants in the public sector . This may be one driver behind why LARCs only make up 0.5% of all contraceptive sales. Furthermore, 55% of all pregnancies in Brazil estimated to be unplanned and 20% of all lives births are attributed to teenage girls, indicating that there may be substantial reproductive knowledge gaps  in how to effectively prevent pregnancy.

Amid the spread of a virus that poses unique health risks to pregnant women and their fetuses, there is an urgent need to address these gaps in reproductive health access and education. First, the Brazilian National Health System, which laudably provides most contraceptives free of charge to about 74% of the population, needs to reevaluate existing policies that may be still limiting access to contraceptive services. Secondly, organizations like the Brazilian Society for Family Welfare (BENFAM), which provides reproductive health services and education to underserved Brazilian communities, need greater financial and political support from policymakers, civil society, and even organizations traditionally opposed to such services like the Catholic Archdiocese.

Despite Brazil’s great strides to improve access to contraception and reproductive health education in recent years, Zika’s arrival highlighted gaps in the existing system that must be addressed through policy reform and greater political and financial support. Especially in the time of Zika, Brazilian women deserve no less.

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