What is Zika virus?
Zika is a virus that’s been around for actually dozens of years; it generally causes a mild viral syndrome and is prevalent in the Tropics—South America, the Caribbean islands, and Pacific islands.
Zika virus is a mosquito-borne illness. Most people who are infected with Zika virus have no symptoms. If they have symptoms, they are usually very mild such as fever, rash, red eyes, muscle pain or joint pain. People usually do not get sick enough to be hospitalized and they very rarely die.
Is there a link between the Zika virus and birth defects? Infection during pregnancy can be harmful to the fetus or the newborn. Zika virus has been associated with microcephaly, a birth defect in which the size of a baby’s head and brain is smaller than expected. This birth defect is associated with developmental delays including trouble speaking, problems with movement and balance, hearing loss, and vision problems.
How is Zika virus transmitted? Women can be infected with the Zika virus directly by mosquito bite in an area where there is active Zika transmission or by sexual transmission from an infected male partner.
How can I prevent catching the Zika virus? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that pregnant women, or women who may potentially become pregnant, avoid travel to countries that have been affected by the virus, including a large number of countries in South America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Check the CDC website http://www.cdc.gov/travel/page/zika-travel-information for a complete list of affected countries. Both pregnant women and their partners should avoid mosquito bites, particularly if traveling to a country that has been affected by Zika. If your sexual partner has recently visited an area with the Zika virus or is infected with the Zika virus, abstain from sex or use condoms throughout the pregnancy.
If I am going to travel to an affected area, what should I do to prevent catching the virus? Travel to an affected area is not recommended for pregnant women. If travel is completely unavoidable, talk to your healthcare provider and take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. This should include use of EPA-registered insect repellents, wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats to cover exposed skin, and maximizing time spent indoors in air-conditioned or screened rooms.
The recommendations for people contemplating pregnancy are a little bit different. If the woman has been exposed to Zika and gotten sick—meaning she has flu-like symptoms, runny nose, sore throat, low-grade fever, red or itchy eyes—it is possible that it is due to the Zika virus and, currently for people who have symptoms that have been exposed, they can be tested to see if that is true.
For a woman who has been exposed and been sick from Zika, it is recommended waiting 8 weeks before tyring to conceive. There’s concern for men that the virus can remain in their bodies and be spread through sexual contact. And so for a man who has been sick from Zika, again, been exposed, been in an area and had a viral syndrome, the man can now be tested and, if he’s been sick or tested positive, the current recommendation is that he not have unprotected intercourse with a pregnant woman or try to conceive for 6 months.
If I catch the Zika virus before my pregnancy, is my baby at risk? We do not yet have recommendations about the safe period between infection and conception. However, once the virus is cleared from the blood, prior Zika infection is not thought to affect future pregnancies.
For more information about Zika virus, visit www.ChildrensNational.org/Zika
If you are concerned that you have been exposed to the Zika virus, please talk to your doctor. The Fetal Medicine Institute at Children’s National can work with your doctors directly.
Phone number: 202-476-7409
*SOURCES: Information provided by Children’s National Health System Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
*Excerpts from The Zika Virus and Getting Pregnant, Eric A. Widra, Medical Director, Shady Grove Fertility