Zika Virus: What Pregnant Mamas Need to Know

Pregnant Mother Traveling

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you have probably heard the growing concern over the spread of the Zika virus. Health officials around the world have declared the Zika virus a public health emergency and efforts to contain it and address the crisis are in motion across the world. Many of the warnings are directed at pregnant women regarding the serious threats the virus poses to unborn children. You may be wondering if this is something you need to be worried about in Minnesota. Here’s all you need to know about the Zika virus as a pregnant woman.

What is the Zika Virus?

Zika is a mosquito born virus that is transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito. The virus belongs to the Flavivirus family along with yellow fever and West Nile and is particularly threatening because there is no vaccine to prevent it and no medicine to treat it. The World Health Organization's Director General has called the recent outbreak an “extraordinary event” and predictions show that an estimated 3-4 million people across the Americas will contract the virus in the next year. Spread primarily through mosquito bites, symptoms of the Zika virus are typically mild and include fever, headache, muscle aches, lethargy, rash and conjunctivitis. The real risk; however, appears to be the harmful effects on the unborn fetus as the virus readily passes through amniotic fluid.

Why Are There Heightened Concerns for Pregnant Women?

The Zika virus has gained worldwide attention due to its potentially damaging effects on unborn babies. The virus has been linked to a serious neurological birth disorder called microcephaly in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. It has also been linked to other neurological abnormalities and Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to paralysis and death. In Brazil alone, some 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported since the fall of 2015 and are suspected to be related to the recent outbreak of the Zika virus. Currently in Colombia, there are an estimated 3,100 pregnant women infected with the Zika virus further raising concerns about the rapidly spreading epidemic and the risks to unborn babies. It should be noted that despite the serious risks the Zika virus poses to pregnant women, they are no more susceptible to contracting the virus than men and non-pregnant women. 

Should I Be Concerned About the Zika Virus?

Zika Virus Outbreaks

It’s easy to see all the hype about the spread of the Zika virus and feel afraid that you and your baby are in danger. And although several states in the US do have confirmed cases of the virus, thus far it has only been found in persons who have traveled abroad to affected areas. If you have not recently traveled to an affected area of the world or come in contact with the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, it is very unlikely that you have contracted the Zika virus. Countries and territories that currently have active Zika outbreaks include: 

  • Barbados
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Colombia
  • Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, US territory
  • Costa Rica
  • Curacao
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • French Guiana
  • Guadeloupe
  • Guatemala
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Jamaica
  • Martinique
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Saint Martin
  • Suriname
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Venezuela
  • American Samoa
  • Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Cape Verde

If you have recently traveled to any of the affected areas and are experiencing two or more symptoms of the Zika virus, contact your healthcare provider for further testing and examination. Even with the absence of symptoms, it is a good idea to share any recent travel concerns with your doctor to ensure that you and your baby are monitored closely going forward. It is believed that the greatest risk is posed to the fetus when exposure to the Zika virus occurs during the first trimester when vital organs are developing. 

How Can I Protect Myself from the Zika Virus?

The best way to protect yourself from the Zika virus is to postpone travel to affected areas until the virus is under control and you are no longer pregnant. The CDC has advised against travel to Zika affected areas for all pregnant women and has recommended that women who reside in those areas avoid becoming pregnant for up to two years. If you absolutely have to travel to an affected area, carefully follow all CDC guidelines to protect yourself from the virus including:

  • Using an EPA approved insect repellent over sunscreen containing deet, picaridin or IR 3535 (all are safe for pregnant women when used properly)
  • Wearing long pants, long sleeves and when possible, permethrin treated clothing
  • Sleeping in an air-conditioned or screened-in room

In addition to avoiding travel and taking the necessary precautions should travel be necessary, take extra measures to prevent mosquitos from gathering around your living space at home. This includes discarding any standing water, keeping screens closed and utilizing insect repellents. The types of mosquitos that can carry the Zika virus are present in many US locations and precautions should be taken to avoid them when possible.

If you have further questions about the Zika virus or if you are pregnant and are concerned about a recent trip to an affected area, contact your healthcare professional for further guidance to ensure that you and your baby remain healthy and thriving.