BANGKOK • Predominantly Buddhist Thailand will relax its strict rules against abortion to cover foetuses with birth defects linked to Zika, health officials said yesterday, doubling to 24 weeks the deadline for the procedure.Thailand last week confirmed its first known cases of microcephaly linked to the mosquito-borne virus. The two cases of the birth defect marked by a small head were the first in South-east Asia, following Zika outbreaks in the Americas.
Health experts concluded that abortions can be carried out at up to 24 weeks in cases of serious birth defects.
"The difficulty with Zika is to determine microcephaly. It is usually found later in pregnancy," said Mr Pisek Lumpikanon, president of the Royal Thai College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, adding that legal medical abortions can be done up to only 24 weeks as babies have a good chance of survival after that.
Abortion is illegal in Thailand, except in cases of rape or to save a woman's life or preserve her health, and if carried out within 12 weeks of pregnancy. Beyond that time, hospitals must decide on a case-by-case basis.
There are no specific tests to determine if a baby will be born with microcephaly but ultrasound scans can identify it in the third trimester of pregnancy, the World Health Organisation says. Thailand said it is considering testing all pregnant women for Zika.
The country has confirmed 392 cases of Zika since January, with 39 pregnant women among them, while Singapore has recorded 401 cases, including 16 pregnant women.
Thailand remains largely conservative, and Theravada Buddhism, the form of the religion practised by up to 95 per cent of its people, regards abortion as a sin. That might lead some doctors to decline to terminate pregnancies, Mr Pisek said, adding: "Buddhism won't affect the law, but some doctors might refuse."