By Alexandra Sifferlin
July 25, 2016
TIME Health
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Amid the ongoing Zika outbreak, some countries have publicly recommended that people postpone pregnancy to prevent the severe birth defect microcephaly, which is caused by the virus.

But countries vary widely on their recommendations, according to a new study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The report points out that Colombia has advised delays of six to eight months, Jamaica is recommending one year, and El Salvador is recommending two years. Other countries like Brazil have said delaying pregnancies might be a good idea, but haven’t given a specific time frame.

On top of that, not all countries are making it easy for men and women to avoid unplanned pregnancies. In Latin America, close to 60% of pregnancies are unplanned. “Without wider availability of effective contraception options throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, people may resort to riskier birth control methods,” the study authors write.

The researchers created a mathematical model to predict whether recommendations to avoid pregnancies actually work. In theory, they do, but the study authors report that the amount of time advised is critical. They estimated that telling people to delay pregnancies is effective if the duration recommended is more than six months, with nine months being an ideal amount of time. The delay should also be advised at the start of the outbreak. If people followed this advice, prenatal Zika virus infections could decrease by around 17% the researchers estimate.

Why? The researchers say that the peak of an epidemic typically occurs around 8 months into the outbreak, so having people delay through that time could prevent cases of microcephaly. But if people are told to wait less than six months, “it could exacerbate prenatal exposure due to the surge in pregnancies after the period of abstinence that may occur near the incidence peak of the epidemic,” the authors write.

One of the difficult parts of the Zika epidemic, is that scientists are learning the best ways to handle the disease in real time. But urging people to put off pregnancies, and providing them with the means to do so, does appear to have a positive benefit.

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