What Pregnant Women Need To Know About Zika

If you’re pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, I’m sure the Zika virus is weighing heavily on your mind right now, and with good reason. The mosquito-borne virus is all over the headlines with its potentially devastating consequences for pregnant women and their babies. And every day, it seems, cases of Zika turn up in another country, including recently in the U.S. Here at Westchester Health, we believe it’s crucial to arm yourself with information and up-to-date instructions for avoiding Zika rather than relying on heresay and scare tactics. That’s why we’ve compiled here in one place what you need to know so you can steps to protect yourself and your family.

Important Zika facts

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Tiffany Werbin-Silver, MD, FACOG

The Zika virus is an insect-borne illness that can be primarily transmitted by infected Aedes mosquitoes, the same kind that carry dengue and yellow fever. The name comes from the Zika Forest in Uganda where monkeys with the virus were first found in 1947.

The virus surfaced just over a year ago in South America, with thousands of babies suffering severe birth defects, including brain damage, in utero when their mothers contracted the virus. It has now spread to more than three dozen countries and territories in the Americas, including the U.S.

Zika has now been detected in travelers returning to the United States from areas of the world where the virus is present. They have gotten the virus either from mosquito bites or from having sex with a traveler. Zika is likely to spread further, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), because the mosquito that transmits Zika is in all but two countries of the Americas, and the people in these regions lack immunity to the virus.

How is Zika passed from mother to fetus?

For pregnant woman, the effects of Zika can be devastating, and can include pregnancy loss or a baby born with an abnormally small head and brain—a condition known as microcephaly. Microcephaly is associated with developmental delays, mental retardation and seizures, and in some cases can be fatal.

There are still many unknowns surrounding exactly how the virus is transmitted from mother to fetus, why some fetuses are infected but don’t develop microcephaly, how often pregnancy loss may occur in expecting women with Zika virus, and whether pregnancy makes women more susceptible to the virus. To date, there have been no infants born with microcephaly due to the Zika virus in the continental United States.

While the Zika virus remains in the blood of an infected person for a few days to a week, according to the CDC, there’s no current evidence to suggest that it poses a risk of birth defects in future pregnancies.

What are the symptoms of Zika?

A Zika infection is similar to a mild case of the flu and may include symptoms such as a low-grade fever, headache, rash, muscle and joint pain, and conjunctivitis (pink eye). Symptoms may last several days to a week. Only 20 percent of people infected with the Zika virus will actually become ill. At this time, it is unclear whether pregnant women are more likely to develop symptoms if they are infected with Zika.

How is a person tested for Zika?

The FDA still has not approved a commercially available diagnostic test for the Zika virus. However, two institutions in Texas have developed a rapid hospital-based test which can detect Zika’s genetic material in a pregnant woman’s amniotic fluid, or in anyone’s blood, urine or spinal fluid. This test is currently available to hospital patients who’ve traveled to an affected region and are experiencing acute symptoms of Zika.

What you can do to avoid getting Zika

New guidance from the CDC now directs pregnant women to be very cautious when it comes to having sex with a partner who has traveled to a region affected by Zika. Couples should use condoms during sex to reduce the risk of potential transmission, or abstain from sex entirely for the duration of the pregnancy.

If you’re pregnant, do not travel to the regions where Zika is present. If travel can’t be avoided, take every precaution to avoid mosquito bites, including:

  • Wear shirts with long sleeves and pants, rather than shorts
  • Use bug spray with DEET, which is safe for pregnant and nursing women
  • Treat clothes with permethrin, a type of insecticide

Countries where Zika has been detected

  • American Samoa
  • Anguilla
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Argentina
  • Barbados
  • Bolivia
  • Bonaire
  • Brazil
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cape Verde
  • Cayman Islands
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • Curacao
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • Figi
  • French Guiana
  • Grenada
  • Guadeloupe
  • Guatemala
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Jamaica
  • Martinique
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Puerto Rico
  • Saint Barts
  • Saint Lucia
  • Saint Maartin
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Samoa
  • Suriname
  • Tonga
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Turks and Caicos Islands
  • S. Virgin Islands
  • Venezuela

NOTE: This list changes almost daily, so it’s very important to check the CDC’s travel information site for updates.

Worried about Zika? Please contact us.

If you think you may have contracted the Zika virus, or are considering traveling to a country where Zika is present, please contact us at Westchester Health. We will help you get tested and/or advise you regarding travel to Zika-affected areas. As always, our goal is to help you and your family stay healthy and strong.

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By Tiffany Werbin-Silver, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN with Westchester Health.

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