Zika Virus 101 for Women
Whether you're pregnant or trying to be pregnant, you're no doubt following the news about the spread of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that can have devastating consequences for pregnant women and their babies. The 2016 Summer Olympics Game in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are starting this week. Brazil has had the largest number of Zika cases and affected babies with congenital birth defects. The Florida State Department of Health reported local transmission of Zika in north Miami this past week and we'll likely see more cases diagnosed in the coming days.
Below infectious disease specialist and medical-journalist Dr. Celine Gounder takes us through what Zika is, what we need to know about it and where we can find more information about it.
What exactly is the Zika virus, and how is it spread?
Zika is a member of the Flavivirus family, which also includes chikungunya and more deadly viruses like Yellow Fever and dengue. All of these viruses are spread by Aedes mosquitoes. In theory the Aedes albopictus, found in much of the United States, could also transmit Zika, but for a host of reasons, it doesn't seem to be very efficient at doing so.
Zika has also rarely been transmitted sexually from infected men to women, and even more rarely from women to men. But it's important to remember that the vast majority of transmission is by mosquitoes.
Most Zika infections are mild. The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis.
Why is everyone so scared of it?
Zika is scary because of what it can do to unborn babies. If a woman is infected with Zika during pregnancy, the virus can infect the fetus and cause malformations including microcephaly, an abnormally small brain and head.
Other infections in pregnancy can also cause congenital malformations including rubella, chickenpox, herpes, parvovirus B19, toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus. In the 1960s, an outbreak of rubella in the United States killed 2,000 newborns and left another 20,000 with microcephaly, heart problems, deafness, blindness and other health problems. It's why we vaccinate against rubella.
I'm expecting and I live in _____. Should I be worried?/Should I get tested?
If you live in an area with active Zika transmission and you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you should be worried. You should do everything possible to protect yourself against mosquito bites: stay indoors where it's air-conditioned or screened-in, wear insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and treat your clothes with permethrin. You may want to delay getting pregnant for the next year or two, a recommendation that's controversial where contraception may not be widely or reliably accessible.
If you do not live in an area with active Zika transmission and you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you should not travel to an area with active Zika transmission. If you must travel to these areas, do everything possible to protect yourself against mosquito bites. And when you come back to the United States, see your obstetrician for screening.
Men traveling to areas with active Zika transmission should be aware that they could transmit Zika sexually to their partner back home.
The CDC is now advising women who travel to Zika transmission areas to wait 8 weeks after they return before trying to get pregnant. Men who have Zika or Zika-symptoms while traveling to Zika transmission areas should wait 6 months after they return before trying to get pregnant. Men who do not have Zika or Zika-symptoms while traveling to Zika transmission areas should wait 8 weeks after they return before trying to get pregnant.
There seems to be a lot we don't know - why is that? What's being done to find out more about the virus?
There are hundreds of thousands of viruses that can infect humans and other mammals. We can't possibly study every single one and develop diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines for each. The best we can do is to conduct surveillance for emerging infections to figure out what viruses (or other infections) are likely to spread and become a problem.
The Obama Administration has asked Congress to provide US$1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the virus, including funding for the U. S. National Institutes of Health and U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do research. But Congress hasn't yet acted on this request.
Should I be worried about Zika virus if I am breastfeeding? What is the current recommendation/policy?
There is no evidence that Zika can be transmitted from mother to child via breastfeeding.
Where could I go (online) to find out the most updated information regarding Zika virus?
What can I do to help those infected by the Zika virus?
Give to organizations distributing insect repellent. Donate to support family planning in Latin America. Fight for women's reproductive rights.
Here's some of Dr. Gounder's reporting on Zika:
*Cover photo by BBC.com