If a woman is infected during pregnancy, Zika has been linked to increased risk of microcephaly and other severe brain defects in the fetus. A large outbreak of Zika began in Brazil and continues to spread to other countries. In February, the World Health Organization declared Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
What we know about Zika
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- No vaccine exists to prevent Zika.
- You can prevent Zika by avoid mosquito bites
- Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus bite mostly during the daytime.
- Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus also spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.
- Zika can be passed through sex from a person who has Zika to his or her sex partners. Condoms (and other barriers to protect against infection) can reduce the chance of getting Zika from sex.
- Local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission has been reported in two areas of Miami.
We recently sat down with Maria Palmquist, MD, with Avera Medical Group Maternal-Fetal Medicine Sioux Falls, to talk about Zika and what women need to know.
Question: What are the symptoms of Zika?
Answer: The symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis or red eyes. Only 20 percent of patients with Zika will show symptoms, so that is another challenge.
Q: What is your advice to women thinking of traveling to infected areas?
A: We are counseling pregnant moms to delay travel if at all possible. Women who are planning a pregnancy with possible exposure to the Zika virus as a result of travel are encouraged to wait eight weeks before trying to conceive. If travel is necessary, then pregnant women should take preventive measures such as wearing mosquito repellent and long sleeves, and staying indoors.
Q: What happens if a pregnant woman did travel to infected area and has symptoms?
A: Because not everyone with Zika shows symptoms, we offer testing to pregnant women who went to an area with Zika. We also do an early ultrasound of the fetus. This provides a baseline of measurements to make sure baby is growing well. We pay special attention to the brain anatomy to make sure there is no extra fluid or calcifications. There is no treatment for Zika and there is nothing we can do to reduce the risk to baby so treatment to an infected mom is supportive.
Q: Is there risk if a woman gets the virus before getting pregnant?
A: There is no evidence that once you’ve had an acute infection that has since cleared up that with subsequent pregnancy there would be risk to the fetus.
Q: If you are infected during pregnancy what are the odds of it transferring to your fetus?
A: We don’t know those exact numbers yet. Not all viruses are transmitted to the fetus, and just because you travel to the area doesn’t mean you will be infected at all. We don’t quite know why the virus affects some fetuses and not others. We know from other viruses and infections that typically when a mom is infected in the first trimester the effects to the fetus often are greater.
Q: What is microcephaly?
A: Microcephaly is a condition of the fetus marked by a small head circumference. Because the brain is small and underdeveloped it can cause developmental delays and intellectual defects. There are also reports of fetal loss, stillbirth, eye abnormalities, optic nerve damage and brain abnormalities. We worry that the virus causes destruction of brain tissue and instead the brain cavity is filled with fluid. We’re talking about profound effects on neurological systems.
Q: Are there other ways to get Zika?
A: Besides being bitten by a mosquito there is risk for sexual transmission from those who are infected. It is thought that men carry the Zika virus longer than women, therefore, men infected who are showing symptoms should abstain or use condoms for at least six months. If they have traveled to an area with Zika and haven’t shown any symptoms we recommend waiting at least eight weeks.
If you have concerns about the Zika virus, talk with your primary care or OB provider.