Health Highlights: Feb. 19, 2016

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Contraception May be Okay During Zika Epidemic, Pope Suggests

Women in areas affected by the Zika virus could use artificial contraception, Pope Francis has suggested.

In light of the threat posed by the virus, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” the pope said Wednesday as he flew back to Rome after a five-day visit to Mexico, the Associated Press reported.

However, he rejected abortion as a response to the Zika virus epidemic.

In his comments, the pope cited a decision by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s to approve artificial contraception for nuns in Belgian Congo due to a high risk of rape, the AP reported.

Abortion “is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil at its root, no? It’s a human evil,” Pope Francis told reporters accompanying him on the aircraft. “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one (Zika), such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”

The Zika virus and its suspected link to babies born with unnaturally small heads and brain damage (microcephaly) has led the World Health Organization to declare a worldwide health emergency, and it has advised sexual partners of pregnant women to use condoms or abstain from sex if they live in or have visited Zika-affected areas, the AP reported.

Of the at least 34 countries known to be affected by the Zika virus, most are predominately Catholic Latin American and Caribbean nations where access to birth control is typically limited and there are strict restrictions on abortion.

Religious leaders and experts said Francis’ comments do not mean Catholics are free to use artificial birth control and do not amount to a change in church teaching, the AP reported.

However, the pope’s remarks suggest that under specific circumstances, Catholics could make a “conscience-based decision about whether they should prevent pregnancy,” Rev. James Bretzke, a moral theologian at Boston College, said.

“Certainly Pope Francis should have anticipated a question on the church’s response to the Zika virus, and from his answer I believe he was well-prepared to field this query,” he told the AP.

“His comment on the Zika virus and measures to avoid pregnancy is within perfect consistency with the traditional moral teaching of the Catholic Church,” Bretzke added.

As the number of Zika and microcephaly cases rises, several Latin American Catholic church leaders have reaffirmed the church’s stance against artificial contraception and abortion.


Fewer American Seniors Live Alone: Study

The percentage of American seniors who live alone has fallen in recent decades, mostly due a decline among women ages 65-84, a new study finds.

One major reason for the change identified by Pew Research Center researchers is that men are living longer, the Washington Post reported.

The percentage of people 65 and older who lived alone fell from 29 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2014. During that time the percentage of men who lived alone rose from 15 to 18 percent, and fell from 38 to 32 percent among women.

The study also found that women who live alone have better social connections, are happier with their social lives than men, spend more time on hobbies, and are less likely to remarry or want to do so after being widowed or divorced, the Post reported.


U.S. Ends Enhanced Airport Screening for Travelers From Guinea

Enhanced airport screening measures to check for Ebola infection in people arriving in the United States from Guinea were lifted Friday by the U.S. government.

Guinea is the last of the Ebola-affected countries in West Africa to be removed from the enhanced entry screening measures.

However, passengers flying out of Guinea will still undergo screening, and the U.S. will continue to support Guinea’s Ebola prevention and detection measures, including at its international airport in Conakry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security said.

People arriving in the U.S. from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will still be told to monitor their health for 21 days after leaving those countries and to contact the local health department or seek medical care if they develop Ebola-like symptoms.

The World Health Organization declared Guinea Ebola-free on Feb. 19. It was the last of the Ebola-affected countries in West Africa to reach that milestone.

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