Much has been reported recently about the outbreak of the Zika virus. This disease is seeing a surge in diagnosed cases especially in Southern and Latin American countries. Zika virus poses great risks for pregnant women, due to potential health complications and side effects to unborn babies who contract the virus from their infected mothers. Such risks include the potential for birth defects, and in the most severe cases, even infant death. If you are pregnant or looking to become pregnant, you should be aware of the causes and risks associated with Zika virus so that you are prepared to keep yourself and your baby safe during and after your pregnancy.
What is Zika virus?
The Zika virus is a usually mild disease that’s transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine for Zika virus, nor is there any current treatment.
What are the known side effects and symptoms?
Zika symptoms include fever, rash, headaches, red eyes, muscle and joint pain, and pain behind the eyes. Cases of death from Zika are extremely rare, but have been reported.
How does Zika virus spread?
The primary way that women can contract the Zika virus is by being bitten by an infected mosquito. Women can also contract the Zika virus from infected male sexual partners. A fetus whose mother has the Zika virus can become infected either during pregnancy or during delivery.
What health risks does the virus pose to babies?
It is believed that Zika virus can cause a condition known as microcephaly in infants who contract the disease in utero or during delivery. Microcephaly is a neurological condition in which a baby’s head develops much smaller than expected during pregnancy. Typically, a baby’s head grows as its brain grows, however in cases of microcephaly, the baby’s brain does not develop properly, or stops growing after birth, resulting in an undersized head. Other birth outcomes detected in fetuses infected with the Zika virus include: eye defects, hearing deficits, and impaired growth. In the most severe cases, microcephaly can be fatal.
What health risks does the virus pose to women who want to become pregnant in the future? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is believed that women who contract the Zika virus are not at risk for birth defects in future pregnancies after the virus has cleared from their blood. Evidence indicates that once a woman has been infected with the virus, she is likely to be protected from a future Zika infection.
What parts of the world face the greatest risk?
For women living in the continental United States, the odds of contracting the Zika virus are extremely low. While cases of Zika have been reported in the continental United States, they have only been cases of individuals who recently traveled to countries with Zika transmission. The CDC recommends that women who are pregnant, or looking to become pregnant, should not travel to the following countries, unless visiting an area with an elevation above 6,500 feet where mosquitos are less prevalent:
- American Samoa
- Cape Verde
- Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, U.S. territory
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- French Guiana
- Marshall Islands
- New Caledonia
- Saint Martin
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadine
- Saint Maarten
- Trinidad and Tobago
- U.S. Virgin Islands
If you are pregnant and have traveled to, or lived in, an affected country, see your OBGYN whether or not you’ve experienced any symptoms.
How can women protect themselves and their babies from Zika virus?
Women should minimize their risks of being exposed to Zika by avoiding countries with known outbreaks. Pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant who plan to travel to an impacted area should talk to their OBGYN prior to traveling. If you can not avoid traveling to a location were Zika has spread, wear long sleeves, pants, and socks, stay inside during peak mosquito hours, and apply forms of mosquito repellent safe to use during pregnancy. In addition, women can minimize their potential exposure to mosquitos by maintaining window screens and air conditioning in their homes, and eliminating places where mosquitos breed such as tires, buckets, and other areas where water pools.
What happens if you do contract Zika while pregnant?
Your doctor will consider administering an amniocentesis test to check your fetus for the virus, and you will likely receive ultrasounds every three to four weeks for the rest of your pregnancy to check for signs of microcephaly.
If you are pregnant of thinking of becoming pregnant, talk to your OBGYN today about the risks of Zika virus to make sure you and your baby are protected now and throughout your pregnancy.