SAN SALVADOR — Reacting to the rapid spread of the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean, health officials in El Salvador are urging women not to get pregnant until 2018 in an effort to halt a surge of birth defects that are suspected to stem from the mosquito-borne disease.
The entire region has erupted with concern over the virus, and each country has taken measures to combat its spread. Other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Ecuador, as well as Jamaica in the Caribbean, have recommended delaying pregnancies, though not for an entire two years.
The rest of Latin America has responded with different tactics, ranging from widespread fumigation efforts to directing citizens not to be bitten by the Aedes mosquito, which is known to carry yellow, chikungunya and dengue fevers.
So far, the hardest hit nation in the region has been Brazil, where more than a million cases have been confirmed, including nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly in newborns that could be linked to Zika. Microcephaly is a rare, incurable condition in which an infant’s head is abnormally small.
El Salvador appears to have taken the most dramatic step so far, though the recommendation this week is not official policy. In a region that is largely Roman Catholic, the request has raised concern from the church, and many Salvadorans question the rationale for upending the national birthrate in order to counter the suspected effects of a virus.
Civil groups have also questioned the practicality of the recommendation, noting that in El Salvador pregnancies are often unplanned. Others say it is a testament to the lack of a coherent strategy from the government, and point to the difficulty of combating something as prevalent and evasive as the mosquito.
Salvadoran officials defended the measure in an interview.
“If we don’t make any recommendations to the population, we could have a high incidence of microcephaly,” said Eduardo Antonio Espinoza Fiallos, the vice minister of health. “Of those children, 99 percent will survive, but with limitations in their mental faculties.”
For the most people, the affects of the Zika virus are mild. Symptoms are flulike and can last up to a week, with victims sometimes unaware that they have contracted the virus. Zika has no known cure.
But a recent spike in cases of microcephaly in infants has health experts worried that the condition could be the result of women contracting Zika while pregnant.