Now that we know the Zika virus causes microcephaly and other birth defects, it is imperative that pregnant women understand the virus — how it can be contracted and what measures they can take to protect themselves and their unborn babies.
We have provided some of the most current information about Zika below to help you keep the expectant women with whom you work informed so they can limit their risk of becoming infected or know what steps to take if they are.
How is the Zika Virus Transmitted?
The Zika virus is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito, primarily those of the Aedes genus. While the vast majority of Zika is transmitted through mosquito bites, sexual transmission of the virus is also possible.
Zika can only be diagnosed through lab tests, but the combination of presenting symptoms and recent travel history may signal a Zika virus infection.
Zika Virus and Pregnant Women
Zika usually causes mild symptoms, including mild fever, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, and headache, which typically last two to seven days. The majority of people who contract the virus fully recover (severe illnesses and death are rare), however, the virus can be especially dangerous for pregnant women as it can be passed to the fetus, potentially causing serious birth defects.
The CDC recently concluded that Zika virus infection during pregnancy could cause microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects. It has also been linked to impaired growth and eye defects in infants. It is important to underscore that not all women infected with Zika during pregnancy will have babies with birth defects, but the babies will be at an increased risk.
What Precautions Should Pregnant Women Take?
Since there is no vaccine against Zika and no medications to protect the fetus in the event a mosquito carrying the Zika virus bites the mother, the best approach at this time is prevention.
The CDC recommends the following special precautions for pregnant women:
- Avoid travel to areas with Zika outbreaks, especially the Caribbean and Latin America.
- If travel cannot be avoided to one of these areas or if a woman lives in one of these areas, she should take steps to prevent mosquito bites, such as covering exposed skin with clothing, staying in air-conditioned or screened rooms, and applying mosquito repellent with DEET or picaridin, both of which are safe to use during pregnancy.
- If her partner has recently visited an area where the Zika virus is prevalent, the couple should take precautions during sex, using a condom or abstaining until after the baby is born.
The following medical testing guidelines are also suggested:
- If a pregnant woman visited an area with active Zika cases, a blood test for the virus should be administered regardless of whether she is experiencing symptoms.
- Pregnant women who live in one of the Zika-affected areas should have blood tests for the virus at least twice during pregnancy, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms.
- All pregnant women who may have been exposed to the virus should also have at least one ultrasound to look for evidence of fetal microcephaly. If tests show that a woman is infected, she should have ultrasounds regularly.
- A newborn should be tested for Zika if the mother visited or lived in any country experiencing an outbreak and the mother’s own tests are either positive or inconclusive.
To keep abreast of Zika virus updates, check the CDC’s Zika virus information page regularly. Learn more about our full line of childbirth education materials.