Recent outbreaks of the Zika virus in the Americas have raised many questions here at home about the effects of the virus on newborn babies. Here’s a rundown of the Zika virus and how it may affect you or your unborn child from Le Bonheur pediatric infectious disease expert, Maria Carillo-Marquez, MD.
First, let’s talk about the virus itself. The Zika virus is related to dengue, yellow fever and the West Nile virus. It’s spread through mosquito bites and has been in Africa and Asia for decades. However, it didn’t begin spreading widely in the West until last May, when there was an outbreak in Brazil. Mexico and most countries in Central and South America are now active sites for Zika transmission.
Cases have been reported in the United States, with the first in Tennessee reported in early February, but those have all been connected with travel abroad.
What are the symptoms of the Zika virus?
Symptoms, if they appear at all, are mild and include a rash, joint pain, red eyes or fever. It’s important to know that 80 percent of people who contract the virus don’t have symptoms.
How does the Zika virus affect infants?
We are still trying to understand the connection, but if the mother acquired the infection during pregnancy it might pass to the unborn baby and cause microcephaly –an unusually small head and brain damage—which can result in seizures and developmental delays such as problems with speech, movement and balance, intellectual disabilities, feeding issues, hearing loss and vision problems.
Is it okay for pregnant women travel to a country where Zika cases have been reported? Pregnant women should consider postponing travel to the areas where the Zika virus is being actively transmitted. Women who are trying to become pregnant should talk with their doctor before traveling to these countries and need to take precautions to prevent mosquito bites during the trip. Insect repellant is safe and effective for use by pregnant women. Women who are breastfeeding should use an EPA-registered insect repellant and follow the product instructions.
If a pregnant woman has already traveled to a country with Zika cases, what steps should she take for herself and her unborn child?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing updated sets of guidelines as they learn more about the situation. For now, they recommend that pregnant women who have visited any area with Zika consult their doctors. Those who had symptoms during the trip or up to a couple weeks after returning should have a blood test for the virus. Additional testing, such as an ultrasound or amniocentesis to test the fluid around the fetus is also recommended in most cases. Zika virus testing is also being recommended for infants born to mothers with positive or inconclusive test results for Zika virus, as well as infants born with microcephaly or intracranial calcifications whose mothers traveled or resided in areas with the Zika virus while pregnant.
If a woman becomes pregnant AFTER contracting the Zika virus, will her infant be at risk for microcephaly?
The Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week, so if the baby is conceived after the virus is cleared from the blood, then there is no risk of infection for the baby.
What else should I know about the virus?
Since there is no vaccine available yet, the most important measure is prevention by avoiding mosquito bites while traveling, including wearing protective clothing and using insect repellant. These measures will also help to prevent other mosquito-borne infections like dengue, yellow fever and chikunguya. Also, Pediatric health are providers should work closely with obstetric providers to identify infants whose mothers were potentially infected with Zika virus during pregnancy.