What is the Zika virus? What pregnant women need to know.
News about a mysterious, tropical virus called Zika and its link to severe birth defects and newborn deaths abroad may be worrisome for many – especially pregnant women or those who are thinking about getting pregnant. Last week, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a first-of-its-kind travel alert recommending that pregnant women avoid countries where Zika has spread.
A small number of cases has recently been reported in the U.S., however the only cases are in women who traveled to areas where they have been bitten by mosquitoes carrying the virus.
If you’re pregnant or have a loved one who is, you may understandably be concerned.
However, it is important to emphasize that the only known way to get this infection is from a mosquito bite in a region where the virus is currently being spread. That means that pregnant women and others who have not traveled to any of those countries are not at risk. This is not a disease that can be transmitted directly from person to person.
More on the Zika virus
What is it?
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus related to dengue, yellow fever and the West Nile virus that causes symptoms in only 20 percent (or 1 in 5) of those infected.
The most common symptoms are usually mild, including fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (eye irritation). Brazil reported an outbreak in May and since then the virus has primarily spread in Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Who is most at risk?
What we know: Anyone who is living in or traveling to an area where the Zika virus is found who has not already been infected is at risk, including pregnant women. People who have not traveled to these areas (even those who may have had direct contact with someone who had the virus in the U.S.) are not at risk.
What we don’t know: While pregnant women have been the focus of concern because of the potential to pass the virus to the fetus, we don’t know if women are more likely to get an infection just because they are pregnant.
What are the risks to a fetus?
What we know: Although the Zika virus rarely causes significant illness in adults, the effects could be severe and irreversible for the fetus of a pregnant woman who is infected. The Zika virus has recently been associated with an increased number of babies born with microcephaly (which causes an abnormally small head and is associated with brain damage), mostly in Brazil.
What we don’t know: Unfortunately, there are still many unknowns. We don’t know how likely it is for a fetus to be affected by the virus if the mother has it. We also don’t know the full spectrum of potential outcomes. It is possible that there could be no impact, or that babies could be very mildly affected if their mother has an infection. In other cases, the consequences could be profound, impacting the child’s ability to function independently. We don’t know if the infection behaves differently in the presence of other factors like nutrition or environment. We also don’t know whether the stage of pregnancy is linked to how babies are affected.
Some newborn deaths and miscarriages abroad have also been associated with the virus but there is no evidence confirming the virus was the cause.
If you are pregnant
At the present time, there is no treatment available for the Zika virus and the recommendations focus on prevention. Women who are pregnant should avoid traveling to any of the areas listed by the CDC. If travel is required, they are advised to limit exposure to mosquito environments such as forests and marshes and use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants, and stay in places with air conditioning.
If you have traveled to an affected region during pregnancy and are concerned, contact your primary care provider to discuss best next steps. Depending on several factors, your doctor may recommend you receive diagnostic and fetal testing to evaluate your baby’s health and development.
For more information about the Zika virus, visit the CDC’s website.