Zika Virus & Pregnancy: Your Guide to Staying Safe
Since the Brazilian state of Pernambuco declared a state of emergency, news about Zika virus has been grabbing headlines. Pictures of babies born with small heads due to the virus are filling social media feeds and newspaper pages.
The ongoing information about how Zika virus affects pregnancy can be scary, especially if you’re currently pregnant or trying to conceive. Unfortunately, many mothers to be can get bogged down with all of the news and are often left confused, with many questions unanswered. You want to make sure that you are safe from Zika virus so that it won’t be passed on to your baby, but where do you start? The first step to preventing Zika virus is education.
Zika Virus: Where Did it Come From?
Zika isn’t a new virus. It was actually first identified almost 70 years ago in Uganda. It was first detected in monkeys in 1947 and then in humans 1952.
So then how did it become such a threat? Some scientists believe that the virus spread from Africa to Asia and the Pacific islands. Since poor countries don’t effectively track diseases, the virus could have gone mostly unnoticed. The first large outbreak of Zika was in 2007 on the Island of Yap. Experts believe that the outbreak was caused by infected air travelers who traveled overseas.
Since 2015, a large outbreak of Zika has been spreading through Brazil and other countries. Since the outbreak started a little more than a year ago, scientists are still learning how Zika virus affects pregnant women, fetuses and born babies.
How Do Women Get Zika Virus?
Most commonly, women get Zika virus when they are bitten by a mosquito that is infected with the virus. An infected man can also spread the virus to his female sex partners.
A fetus can get Zika virus from a mother during pregnancy or when she gives birth. However, it is not known how likely it is that the virus will be passed onto the fetus.
Symptoms of Zika Virus
Unfortunately, most people infected with Zika virus won’t even know it. For this reason, it’s recommended that pregnant women go to their doctor if they experience any of these following symptoms two weeks after traveling to a Zika-affected area:
- Joint pain
- Red eyes
It’s very rare for someone to die, or even go to the hospital, because of Zika. The virus stays in the blood for about a week, sometimes longer.
How Does Zika Virus Affect the Baby?
It is now confirmed that Zika virus can cause birth defects in babies born to infected mothers.
However, it’s important to note that not all babies will be born with problems if their mother has the Zika virus. In fact, women infected with Zika virus have delivered healthy babies.
Microcephaly and Zika Virus
Since the major outbreak in 2015, Brazil has seen an increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly. According to the New York Times, in a typical year, there are nine babies born with microcephaly in Pernambuco, Brazil. Since the Zika outbreak in 2015, 646 babies were born with the condition.
Until recently, researchers couldn’t definitively say there was a relationship between microcephaly and Zika.
After reviewing existing evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded in April that Zika causes Microcephaly and other birth defects.
“This study marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak. It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly. We are also launching further studies to determine whether children who have microcephaly born to mothers infected by the Zika virus is the tip of the iceberg of what we could see in damaging effects on the brain and other developmental problems,” said Tom Frieden, director of the CDC in a press release.
What is Microcephaly?
Microcephaly is a birth defect in which a baby’s head is significantly smaller than the average sized baby. Because the head is small, the brain is smaller than normal as well and usually will not grow normally after birth.
Microcephaly occurs in two scenarios:
- The baby’s brain wasn’t developed normally during pregnancy
- The infant’s brain stops growing after birth
Microcephaly has different levels of severity and depending on how extreme the condition is, it could cause:
- Developmental delay
- Intellectual disability
Microcephaly is an uncommon, but lifelong condition (occurring 1 in 10,000 of all births). There are several causes of Microcephaly other than Zika virus.
Other Birth Defects and Zika Virus
Infants born to Zika-affected mothers may have other birth defects. These could include hearing loss, eye defects and impaired growth. Infants that experience these defects may experience them as a symptom of microcephaly or as an individual defect. However, more research needs to be conducted to better understand the relationship between these defects and Zika virus.
Scans, imaging and autopsies show that infants are being born with significantly more brain damage than a typical baby with microcephaly. These severe defects suggest that Zika can shrink or destroy the lobes that control thought, vision and other functions.
Many experts believe that other birth defects will become known only after a baby grows. This means that if a baby is born and appears to be healthy, you may not be in the clear just yet. Since the major outbreak occurred in 2015 and these infants are still young, science still has much to discover.
According to a study in Colombia, women who were infected with Zika virus late in their pregnancies had babies with no apparent birth defects.
Zika Birth Defects in the U.S. and Canada
CDC data from June 9 reports that three women in the U.S. have given birth to babies with birth defects associated with Zika. Another three expectant mothers had lost their babies with birth defects related to the virus.
No babies in Canada have been born with birth defects due to the Zika virus. However, in April media reported that two pregnant Canadians had tested positive for the virus.
If a newborn’s mother has traveled to a Zika-affected area and has not tested negative, the baby should also be tested for the virus.
Could Zika Affect My Ability To Get Pregnant in the Future?
Maybe you’re not pregnant or trying to conceive now, but you’re still concerned about your ability to in the future.
Good news: According to the CDC, the available evidence does not suggest that a baby would be born with problems after the virus has cleared from the mother’s blood.
In similar cases, the CDC says once a person is infected with Zika and then cleared of it, they are likely to be protected from a future Zika infection.
How Can I Prevent Zika Virus While Travelling?
Unlike other travel-related illnesses, there is no vaccine or medicine to prevent or treat Zika virus.
The CDC is urging pregnant women or women wishing to conceive to avoid travel to areas where Zika is spreading. These areas include:
- The Caribbean
- Central America
- The Pacific Islands
- South America
- Puerto Rico
- US Virgin Islands
- American Samoa
Click here for a full list of countries in which travel notices have been issued. Since 2015, there have been locally acquired Zika virus cases in 52 countries.
What if Travel to Zika-Affected Countries is Unavoidable?
If travel to one of those locations in unavoidable, you should talk with your healthcare provider. Your doctor should inform you about steps to prevent infection. Firstly, if your partner has traveled to an area with Zika virus, you should use a condom during all sexual activity. The World Health Organization recommends waiting eight weeks after any possible exposure to the virus to have unprotected sex.
Experts believe semen to be the source of sexual transmission of Zika. For this reason, it’s not known if a woman can infect her partners.
Secondly, you should take precautions to avoid getting mosquito bites in infected areas.
How to Prevent Mosquito Bites and Zika
- Wear clothing that covers your skin, such as long-sleeved shirts and pants
- Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents, which are safe for pregnant women
- Stay in places with windows and door screens so that mosquitos will be kept outside
- Stay away from containers with standing water since these are often mosquito breeding areas
Am I at Risk in the U.S. and Canada?
In Canada, there have been 123 Zika virus cases as of June 16th. In one case, the virus was locally acquired through sexual transmission. The other 122 cases were travel-related. In the U.S. (excluding territories), there have been 755 travel-associated cases as of June 16th.
The good news is that none of these cases involves locally acquired transmission. This means that you are safe in these areas as long as you do not contract the virus sexually. A person infected with Zika should take care not to get bitten by mosquitos, as the insect could then spread the virus locally.
The bad news is that you are at risk if you live in or travel to the U.S. territories. U.S. Territories have seen 1,436 locally acquired cases as of June 16th. To see updated data, click here.
To be safe, it’s best to postpone that family vacation if you’re pregnant. Fortunately, some airlines are offering refunds or credit towards future travel. For example, you can request a refund from American Airlines if you purchased your ticket on or before March 31. For these requests, you will need to provide a doctor’s note to confirm your pregnancy. Contact your airline or cruise line to learn about your options.