According to the World Health Organization, the first major outbreak of Zika virus occurred in 2007 on an island in Micronesia. It has since appeared in tropical and developing countries across the world. Zika surfaced in South Florida in July 2016, causing alarm because of its link to severe birth defects in infants born of infected mothers. But how concerned should we be locally? Here, Elizabeth P. Schlaudecker, M.D., pediatrician, researcher, and mother of three, provides facts about the virus and how parents-to-be should respond.
How is Zika transmitted?
A: It is spread by mosquitos, usually the Aedes aegypti. If a mosquito bites someone who is infected with Zika, then bites someone else, the disease spreads from one person to another. The only way Zika transmits from person to person is from mother to child or from sex with a person who has been infected. So someone’s partner who travels and becomes infected can pass it to his partner. You can also get it through a blood transfusion, though there are no confirmed cases of that [in the U.S.].
What are symptoms and complications of Zika virus?
A: Most people don’t have symptoms. In some ways, that’s what makes it scary for pregnant women. You can be infected and not know. If you do have symptoms, they are usually pretty mild flu-like symptoms like fever, rash, vague joint pain, red eyes, muscle pain, and headache. It’s usually in your bloodstream for about a week. These symptoms are very similar to dengue fever and chikungunya, so we test people for all three viruses.
Sadly, the most devastating complications appear to be in babies of moms who have been infected. We have enough data now to support the fact that Zika is causing some of these long-term problems like microcephaly [small head caused by abnormal brain development], which is something that you can’t really treat. There have been other birth defects associated with the virus: eye defects, hearing loss, poor growth, babies born too small. There is definitely a lot more research that we need to do. We don’t think it’ll cause long-term effects in babies born years later [to women previously infected]. We think you can contract Zika only once.
How can parents-to-be protect themselves and their babies?
A: It’s pretty safe to say that our regional concerns are small. I don’t want people to displace their worry about other things like getting regular vaccines for things that are actually there. As winter approaches, there will be even fewer mosquitos and less risk of them spreading in the United States.
My general advice is that the risk is fairly low but the outcome is bad enough that I would avoid travel to affected areas [if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant]. I have encouraged people who are finished having children to take those trips but take mosquito precautions such as wearing insect spray and long pants because, again, you don’t want any of those three diseases. The CDC recommends DEET. This is most recommended for pregnant women, which is tricky because many people are not excited to use DEET. The CDC also recommends Picaridin, a pepper derivative with hardly any scent. I have switched to that. And even where there’s widespread Zika virus, the recommendation is still breastfeeding. The benefits of breastfeeding definitely outweigh the risk of transmitting Zika.