Know the facts about the Zika virus
By Julie McFarland, MD – InterMed Women’s Health
If you have been watching the news recently, you’ve probably heard about it — the Zika virus. For the past year, Zika has been causing quite a stir among pregnant women and their doctors, and with good reason. This virus, transmitted by mosquitos and through sex, has been linked to serious birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected during pregnancy or in the few months before conceiving. In this post, I’ll review the latest information we have on this virus and how you can reduce your risk.
What is Zika, and what are the symptoms?
Zika is a virus that humans can get when they are bitten by mosquitos that carry the virus. Most people — up to 80 percent — have no symptoms. If someone does experience symptoms, usually they are mild. People can have fevers, headache, rash, joint or body aches, or eye irritation. These symptoms also have many other causes, so it can be very hard to tell if symptoms are due to Zika or not.
How is Zika spread?
The virus is mostly spread by getting a bite from an infected mosquito but it can also be spread through sex. The virus can remain active in a man’s sperm for six months after an infection, possibly longer, and can cause infection in his sex partners. The virus can remain active in women for two months after infection. The virus can cross through the placenta in a pregnant woman, and affect the developing baby.
How is Zika treated?
There is no treatment for Zika virus. Like most viruses, the body’s immune system kills the virus over time.
How does Zika affect unborn babies?
If woman gets the Zika virus in the months before pregnancy or during a pregnancy, her baby is at risk for congenital Zika syndrome. Babies with congenital Zika syndrome can have microcephaly (a problem with skull and brain development), joint problems, vision and hearing problems, and growth delays. There may also be an increased risk of miscarriage and stillbirth if a pregnant women gets the Zika virus. Not all women who get Zika in pregnancy will have a baby that is affected. We still don’t know what percentage of babies who are exposed will have birth defects.
How can I prevent getting exposed to Zika?
The following groups should not travel to areas where there is a risk of getting Zika virus:
- Pregnant women
- Women who are planning a pregnancy in the next 2 months
- Men who are planning to conceive a pregnancy in the next 6 months
The CDC website has a world map that can help you check if an area is affected by Zika (visit the CDC website). Remember that Zika is not just affecting the Caribbean and Mexico. Most of South and Central America are affected, as are parts of Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, and advisories are changing frequently. If people in the above groups must travel to affected areas, they should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites, including wearing long sleeves and long pants, and using bug spray with DEET.
Finally, it is important to prevent sexual transmission during pregnancy. If a pregnant woman’s partner (male or female) has traveled to an affected area in the months prior to pregnancy, or if he travels during the pregnancy, condoms or other barrier protection should be used for the whole pregnancy during vaginal, oral, or anal sex to prevent getting the virus through sex.
I am pregnant and might have been exposed. What now?
Let your doctor know if you or your sex partner has recently traveled. All pregnant women with possible exposure and symptoms of Zika virus should be tested as soon as possible after symptoms start. Pregnant women who have no symptoms but have frequent possible exposure (through travel to affected areas or through unprotected sex with a partner who has traveled) should also be tested. It is no longer routinely recommended to test women who have had a brief exposure (one episode of travel or unprotected sex).
If you do have a positive test during pregnancy, your doctor will recommend increased ultrasound monitoring, and your baby’s pediatrician will need to follow your baby after birth for signs of congenital Zika syndrome.
I’m planning a pregnancy. Should I be tested for Zika? Can my partner be tested?
The CDC does not recommend testing people who aren’t pregnant and don’t have symptoms of Zika virus. Many couples ask if they can be tested for Zika after they have traveled to make sure it is “safe” to conceive. Unfortunately, the tests we have for Zika virus aren’t perfect, and having a negative test doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have the virus. Also, we know the virus can live in semen for a long time even after it has left the blood stream. There is no way to test semen for Zika at this time. The safest thing to do is follow the guidelines above about travel and condom use.
The bottom line: Zika virus infection is uncommon in women living in Maine, and thankfully there are steps you can take to prevent infection. Guidelines for prevention and testing are changing frequently as we learn more about this virus, so it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor about any questions, especially if you are planning a pregnancy soon. Here at InterMed Women’s Health, we are taking steps to stay up to date on the latest information, so feel free to schedule an appointment anytime.
For more information about the Zika virus, go here.