MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going back now to a story we've been following closely - the outbreak of the Zika virus in more than 20 countries. The virus is being linked to serious birth defects. It's spurring officials in places like Ecuador and El Salvador to warn women against getting pregnant. And that's controversial advice because contraceptives are hard to come by and abortions are illegal in many Zika-affected areas. We've been trying to understand how women and their doctors are coping with such dramatic and life-changing circumstances. So we found missionary Dr. David Vanderpool. He moved to Haiti from Brentwood, Tenn. For six years, he's run a health grouped called Live Beyond, which focuses on maternal care. As Zika has started to appear in Haiti, he's been grappling with questions that are at odds at times with his Christian doctrine. Dr. Vanderpool joined us from Thomazeau, which is about 20 miles outside of Port-au-Prince. And I asked him about his practice.
DAVID VANDERPOOL: We provide clean water, nutritional support and then medical care to the people of Thomazeau. And we feel like it's incumbent upon those of us who have skills that can benefit these people to use these skills. These are the poorest of the poor.
MARTIN: Well, what do you make of this guidance to women not to get pregnant? Does - is that realistic?
VANDERPOOL: People assume that women in Haiti, you know, would have the same access to birth control that American women would, and it's just not true. The Haitian woman may not have a choice in sex. The sex may not be consensual at all. And so just enjoining people not to have babies is probably not going to be very effective.
MARTIN: Is there anything that you personally had to reevaluate for yourself when you started working in Haiti every day that caused you to think differently about this?
VANDERPOOL: It's easy to wax philosophical when we're in an air-conditioned building in the United States surrounded by all the food and water that we need, but when you go into the reality of these people's lives, the philosophy sort of goes out the window. We have so many examples of women who had to prostitute themselves because their children were starving to death. Well, you know, that's not a philosophically discussed question, but that is a real question; that's a reality.
MARTIN: Do you support the use of contraception, for example? Many in - the Catholic Church specifically opposes what they call artificial birth control message. Do you think that - do you support them given the environment, given what you see?
VANDERPOOL: Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, we give out contraception. Many of our ladies will be pregnant 16 times in their life. About half of those pregnancies, the children will survive until age 5. We see that with each pregnancy, they lose about 20 percent of their body weight, and the toll is extreme. And it's one of the reasons that Haiti has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
MARTIN: I have to ask you about what is a very sensitive and volatile and polarizing question, which is the question of abortion, which is illegal in many countries in Central America and South America. Do you have an opinion about that in this case?
VANDERPOOL: You know, in my opinion, abortion is not a good answer. I think that our answer's going to lie in proper birth control and adequate vaccines. You know, we've known this virus has been around since 1947. We could have come up with a cure many, many years ago so that we wouldn't even be having this conversation.
MARTIN: Dr. David Vanderpool is a missionary doctor in Haiti. And he was kind enough to join us over the phone today from Thomazeau, Haiti. Dr. Vanderpool, thank you so much for speaking with us.
VANDERPOOL: Thank you so much. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.