It’s been three years since the Zika virus outbreak in northeast Brazil, affecting pregnant women and their children. While the United States has thus far not experienced the feared epidemic, Zika remains a concern everywhere for pregnant women and those trying to conceive.
How dangerous is the Zika virus?
As we move into summer, I can’t help but also think of the Zika virus. While it has faded from the front pages of our newspapers in the last two years, it is still very much a danger for those traveling.
In 2017 there were 451 symptomatic Zika virus cases reported. Of those, 436 cases were people returning from affected areas. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only seven cases were “presumed local mosquito-borne transmission,” which were in Florida and Texas.
To date, there are no mosquitos that carry the Zika virus in Rhode Island. In 2018 there have been no reports of local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmissions in the U.S. But, Zika is still out there and we still need to be careful, particularly if you are trying to get pregnant.
While historically Zika virus has occurred mainly in regions of Africa and Asia, the virus spread to the Americas in the 2000s. The disease is typically spread through mosquito bites, but from there it can be sexually transmitted and also passed from pregnant mother to her child. There is no vaccine to prevent people from getting Zika nor is there a treatment option for those who contract the virus. That means any steps to prevent getting Zika are very important.
What are the symptoms?
According to the World Health Organization, the symptoms of the Zika virus are similar to dengue fever and can include skin rashes, headaches, pain in muscles and joints, conjunctivitis (pink eye), malaise, and fever. The symptoms are typically mild and last less than a week. Often individuals may experience no symptoms at all. Because there may be no visible signs of the Zika virus, it is extremely important to stay vigilant and protect yourself.
What about Zika and pregnancy?
Zika virus can be transmitted through having sex without a condom with someone who has the infection, even if that individual does not show symptoms of the virus. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus which can result in a number of birth defects. The most common of these is microcephaly. This abnormal development of the head and brain can cause severe neurological issues including seizures and developmental delays.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists lists some other common birth defects.
- A thin cerebral cortex with calcifications
- Eye damage such as macular scarring
- Excessive connective tissue that restricts movement
What precautions can I take if I am pregnant or trying to conceive?
If you are already pregnant or are currently trying to get pregnant, it is best to not travel to areas with a risk of Zika. A little inconvenience of postponing a trip is a better option in this instance.
The CDC website keeps an up-to-date list of locations where the virus is an ongoing risk. Talk to your primary care doctor, obstetrician, or Women & Infants’ Fertility Center physician about your travel plans and take steps to prevent mosquito bites. Travelers should use insect repellent with an active ingredient of DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus, picaridin, or IR3535 and reapply per the label instructions. They should wear long-sleeved shirts and long-pants and stay indoors where windows and doors are screened.
The CDC guidelines for those trying to conceive are as follows.
- If only the male partner travels to an area with risk of Zika, the couple should refrain from trying to conceive, by using condoms or not having sex for at least 6 months.
- If only the female partner travels to an area with risk of Zika, the couple should refrain from trying to conceive, by using condoms or not having sex for at least 2 months.
- If both partners travel to an area with risk of Zika, the couple should refrain from trying to conceive, by using condoms or not having sex for at least 6 months.
These guidelines apply even if neither party has the symptoms of Zika. The guidelines for men and women differ because the Zika virus can stay in semen longer than in other bodily fluids.
Could I be infected?
Unless you have traveled to or had unprotected sex with a person who has recently traveled to an affected area, there is likely no reason for alarm. If you have any doubt or more questions about Zika, I encourage you to speak with your healthcare provider. The spread of the virus and the impacted areas can change quickly, so check the CDC website regularly for the most up-to-date information.
Plan your travel safely with help from Dr. Hardy of the Women’s Infectious Disease Consultative Service