Everything you need to know about the mysterious mosquito-borne illness that's sweeping the globe—and how it affects you as a pregnant woman.
Even though it's not extremely dangerous for most people, the Zika virus could pose serious problems for women and their fetuses if a pregnant woman is bitten. The illness has been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly, which can lead to incomplete brain development and a small head—it may also cause serious vision abnormalities. A recent study from Yale identified a link between Zika and the development of glaucoma as well.
There's been a 20-fold increase in Brazilian babies born with microcephaly since the virus first appeared in Brazil. The major surge in cases of microcephaly in Brazil led health officials to warn women to avoid becoming pregnant. Over the course of 2016, a number of countries worldwide warned against pregnancy, including Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, American Samoa, Costa Rica, Curacao, Nicaragua, Aruba, Bonaire, Trinidad and Tobago, The Marshall Islands, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Sint Maarten, New Caledonia, Cuba, Dominica, Kosrae, Fiji, Saint Lucia, Belize, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Grenada, and Argentina.
Updated: Most recently, the CDC updated guidelines where the screening of pregnant women is concerned. The organization previously recommended that all pregnant women who had visited any of the areas with active transmission be tested—but they've changed this guideline, as blood tests appear to yield frequent false positives. Women who experience symptoms of the virus—which include fever, rash and joint pain—will still be tested under these guidelines...but those who have visited an area but have no symptoms of Zika won't.
The scary thing about this? Women who don't experience symptoms can still pass the virus on to their babies. If you're concerned about your risk, it's worth chatting with your doctor, even if you're not experiencing any symptoms. Asymptomatic women may still be tested on a case-by-case basis, and those who live in or are frequently exposed to areas of transmission will still be tested even if they don't have symptoms. It's also worth noting that this change in guidelines doesn't mean it's safe for pregnant women or those who are considering pregnancy to travel to any of the areas on the CDC's no-go list.
Here's everything you need to know about the Zika virus.
Where the virus is
If you're with child or planning to become pregnant, you're advised to avoid traveling to these areas: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Guyana, Cape Verde, Samoa, US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic.
The U.S. FDA authorized an Emergency Use Authorization for a diagnostic tool meant to detect antibodies in the blood that can identify the virus, if you've traveled to an affected area and exhibit symptoms of Zika.
Outbreaks of Zika have been reported in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands—but there's cause for concern in the United States as well. There was a confirmed case of the illness in Texas, two pregnant women were infected in Illinois and recent research warns of Zika's potential to spread within the Americas. Parts of Florida, including the Miami area, were found to have outbreaks.
We've also learned of a few confirmed cases of the virus in the United States. There was a reported case in California, but the victim has recovered. There have also been cases in Virginia, New York City, Arkansas and Pennsylvania.
How you contract Zika
The Zika virus is transmitted via a certain type of mosquito from the Aedes species. These mosquitoes also spread dengue fever and the chikungunya virus.The mosquitos can become infected if they bit someone who carries the virus, at which they point they can pass it to someone else.
There is a possibility that mothers can pass the virus to their babies—if a mom is infected at the time of delivery, there is a small chance she can transmit it to her infant and the possibility of a pregnant woman passing the virus to a fetus is being investigated. There was one case of possible transmission via sexual intercourse.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health observed the virus's effect on mice and found that, while a woman's placenta usually works to keep infenctions away from their babies, Zika has the power to pass through the barrier. Researcers also found that babies born after Zika exposure may have thinner brain tissue or inflammation. The good news? This finding may help scientists develop a course of treatment that could keep Zika from crossing the placenta and affecting the baby.
According to the CDC, about one in five people who are infected with the virus become ill and symptoms commonly include fever, rash, red eyes, muscle pain and headaches. The symptoms generally last for a few days to a week.
There is no vaccine or medication available to treat Zika. Those who are infected should get plenty of rest, drink fluids and take pain-relieving medicine—if infected, you should also do your best to avoid mosquito bites for the first week of the illness.
Here's what you should do
The major takeaway from all this? It should go without saying that you should heed the CDC's advice and stay away from the areas mentioned above. If you must travel to a place where you're likely to find mosquitoes, take appropriate precautions: Use insect repellant, wear long sleeves and pants, opt for the air conditioning if available and use window/door screens whenever possible.