For thousands of women in Latin American countries, the joy of pregnancy has given way to fear. Maternity wards across the region are full of women waiting anxiously for ultrasound scans that will indicate whether the child they are carrying has a shrunken head and damaged brain, as a result of a condition called microcephaly.

Shocking images of babies with birth defects have made many women think twice about getting pregnant. Some women face a dilemma, pitting their religious beliefs about abortion against the risk that their babies could be born with abnormally small heads and a short life expectancy.

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A pregnant woman gets an ultrasound at a maternity ward in Guatemala CityJohan Ordonez/AFP
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Patients participate in a Zika prevention talk as they wait to be attended to at the Women's National Hospital in San Salvador, El SalvadorJose Cabezas/Reuters
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Pregnant women await to be checked by a doctor at the Alonso Suazo clinic in Tegucigalpa, HondurasOrlando Sierra/AFP
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Daniele Ferreira holds her microcephalic son Juan Pedro during a session to stimulate the development of his eyesight at the Altino Ventura rehabilitation centre in Recife, BrazilUeslei Marcelino/Reuters

The virus has been reported in more than 30 countries, most of them in the Americas. So far, only Brazil has seen a sharp rise in microcephaly cases suspected of being linked to the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to areas with an active Zika outbreak. The American Red Cross has asked blood donors who have traveled to Zika virus outbreak areas such as Mexico, the Caribbean or Central and South America to wait at least 28 days before donating.

Some Latin American governments have advised women to delay having children. El Salvador recommended women not get pregnant for two years.

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Juliana Gomes, who is eight months pregnant, poses for a picture at the IMIP hospital in Recife, BrazilUeslei Marcelino/Reuters
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A pregnant woman waits to be attended to at the Women's National Hospital in San Salvador, El SalvadorJose Cabezas/Reuters
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A health worker sprays mosquito repellent on a pregnant woman's arm, during a campaign to fight the spread of Zika virus in Soledad municipality near Barranquilla, ColombiaAleydis Coll/Soledad Municipality/Reuters
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A pregnant woman reads a government campaign poster informing about Zika virus symptoms at the maternity ward of a hospital in Guatemala CityJosue Decavele/Reuters
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A doctor extracts blood from a pregnant woman suspected to be infected with the Zika virus, at the maternity ward of a hospital in Guatemala CityJosue Decavele/Reuters
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Worried parents take their children to a hospital in Tegucigalpa, HondurasOrlando Sierra/AFP
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Pregnant women wait to be attended at a maternity ward in GuatemalaJohan Ordonez/AFP
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A pregnant woman waits to be attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa, HondurasOrlando Sierra/AFP

The Zika outbreak has triggered debate on liberalising abortion in the region, where many countries have strict laws. A group of researchers, activists and lawyers plan to petition Brazil's Supreme Court to allow abortions for women who have the virus, bypassing an increasingly conservative Congress where Evangelical lawmakers are backing a bill to restrict abortion, even in cases of rape.

Public health experts believe Zika will lead to an increase in illegal abortions. An estimated one million are already carried out every year in Brazil. Botched procedures in clandestine clinics using sharp tools, over-the-counter medicines and no sterilisation are already a major cause of deaths.

Brazil's government says women who want to get pregnant should discuss the risks with their doctors, but has stopped short of telling them to delay. Instead, it plans to hand out insect repellent to tens of thousands of low-income pregnant women and is stepping up an offensive to eradicate the mosquito, with the help of the army.

Zika is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which breeds in stagnant water. While anyone can be bitten by Aedes, public health experts agree that the poor are more vulnerable because they often lack amenities that help diminish the risk, such as air conditioning and window screens. Test kits for the virus are only effective in the first week of infection and only available at private clinics at a cost of 900 reais (£157), out of the reach of many women.

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Lediane da Silva, who is eight months pregnant, stands outside her home in the shanty town of Beco do Sururu, Recife, BrazilUeslei Marcelino/Reuters
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Kaitie Resende, who is seven months pregnant, pose for a photo outside her home in Vila Canoas slum in Rio de Janeiro, BrazilPilar Olivares/Reuters
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Gisele Felix, who is five months pregnant, applies mosquito repellent at her home in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She says she has not gone outside her house during her 30-day holidayPilar Olivares/Reuters
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Three-month-old Alice Vitoria Gomes Bezerra, who has microcephaly, is held by her mother Nadja Cristina Gomes Bezerra in Recife, BrazilMario Tama/Getty Images
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Germana Soares holds her two-month-old son Guilherme Soares Amorim, who was born with microcephaly, near her house in Ipojuca, BrazilUeslei Marcelino/Reuters
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Five-month-old David Henrique Ferreira, who was born with microcephaly, is fed by his grandfather Severino Vicente in Recife, Pernambuco state, BrazilMario Tama/Getty Images

World Health Organisation officials say there is no scientific proof that Zika stunts the development of the foetus, causing microcephaly, but it is strongly suspected.