What every pregnant woman and mother should know about the virus.
Much is in the news about the Zika virus—and along with that constant news stream, many incorrectly reported facts. As a healthcare provider, I treat women in all stages of life—and along with that care, education is integral.
Here is a quick guide with the seven top questions and answers on Zika that every pregnant woman and mother—or woman wanting to get pregnant—should know.
1. What is the Zika virus and why should we be concerned with its rapid spread in our part of the world?
Named for the Ugandan forest in which it was first discovered, Zika is a virus that was identified decades ago. It has earned a prominent place in the news mostly because of its effects on developing babies, as well as its very rapid spread through South and Central America.
2. How is Zika transmitted?
Zika virus is transmitted by a species of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, which generally does not travel as far north as Missouri and Kansas, but is commonly found in Latin America and warm, humid Southern U.S. states such as Florida and Texas. Along with Zika, Aedes aegypti carries chikungunya and dengue viruses, both of which cause much more severe illnesses in humans than Zika. Although mosquito-borne transmission is the most common way to become infected with Zika there is mounting evidence of sexual transmission, which means that spouses or partners of people who travel to high-risk Zika areas are themselves at risk. Zika has also been identified in other body fluids such as breast milk, saliva and urine, although there is currently no evidence the disease can be transmitted through these infected fluids. There is no vaccine for Zika.
3. How is Zika diagnosed?
Zika is usually diagnosed by a combination of known exposure to mosquitos in a high-risk area and symptoms that suggest an infection. Only about one in five people who are infected with Zika have any symptoms at all. If symptoms do occur, they include fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes) and headache. The symptoms begin a few days after exposure and last several days to a week. It’s rare for symptoms to be severe enough to require hospitalization and deaths from Zika are also very rare.
Zika infection may also lead to a rare neurological syndrome called Guillain-Barre, in which the body’s own defenses attack the nervous system, leading to muscle weakness and, in severe cases, paralysis. Although it usually resolves, symptoms can be severe enough to require hospitalization. If you have traveled to an area where Zika is active and develop any of the symptoms listed, contact your healthcare provider. A test is available in certain circumstances and your provider may also order tests to detect dengue or chikungunya.
4. How is Zika treated?
There is no specific treatment for Zika illness besides treatment of the symptoms it causes. As with any illness that causes a fever in a pregnant woman, it is important to try to reduce the fever as soon as possible with medication such as Tylenol. The other symptom relief measures that can be helpful are rest and drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. If you’re pregnant, do not take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Motrin or Advil.
5. How long does the Zika virus stay in the body after the illness?
Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week but may be found longer in some people. It’s important to avoid mosquito bites during that time and avoid having sex with anyone not already infected.
6. What effect can Zika virus have on developing babies?
Zika is strongly suspected of causing microcephaly, an irreversible birth defect in which a developing fetus has an abnormally small head. Developmental disabilities in this disorder range from mild to severe and aren’t predictable prior to birth. Zika is also thought to damage the eyes of some babies who are born to a woman infected during her pregnancy. The effect of Zika on the developing baby’s head and brain cannot be detected before 16-20 weeks of pregnancy. Detection is by ultrasound, which can also be used to follow the baby’s growth and development during the rest of the pregnancy to look for signs of microcephaly. No treatment reverses the effects of Zika, however. Zika may also cause miscarriage and has been identified in placentas after delivery. It’s unknown how often Zika virus causes such problems in pregnancy and there is no treatment for the pregnancy complications it causes. If a pregnant woman contracts Zika, she should notify her healthcare provider right away.
7. What if I’m already pregnant? How can I avoid getting Zika?
The best advice is to postpone travel to countries on the high-risk list (see CDC travel guidelines) until after delivery. If unable to avoid traveling to one of the affected countries or to a part of the U.S. where Zika is possible, take great care to avoid mosquito bites. Protection should be constant since the mosquito that transmits Zika bites both during the day and at night. Choose lodging with screens or air conditioning; wear long sleeves and long pants and use an effective mosquito repellant such as DEET, picaridin or IR3535. These are considered safe for pregnant women when used as directed (review complete CDC guidelines for using insect repellents).
*Refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which regularly updates its website with important information.
*Additionally, two informative HCA Midwest Health interviews with physician experts are available to view: