In 2015, Brazil reported an outbreak of rash illness, which was soon identified as Zika virus. Over the following months, scientists researched the virus and found it was associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome, microcephaly and other birth defects.
In 2016, the World Health Organization announced that Zika infection was a public health emergency of international concern. To date, 86 countries and territories have reported mosquito-transmitted Zika infection.
What is Zika virus?
The Zika virus is usually spread by the Aedes mosquito. Aedes mosquitoes are called ‘day biters’, because they commonly attack during the day – although they can also bite at night. These mosquitoes live both inside and outside, making them tricky to avoid. Mosquito bites are the most common way the Zika virus is spread.
In rare instances, you can catch the Zika virus by having sex with somebody who has the infection. The Zika virus is not usually a severe infection but can pose a serious risk to pregnant women and their developing babies.
Where is the Zika virus found?
The World Health Organization states that the following countries have confirmed cases:
Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname and Venezuela.
The World Health Organization predicts that the virus will likely spread across the Americas. The virus is native to Africa but it is thought that a lack of natural immunity to the virus is helping it to spread so quickly in the Americas.
During 2016 and 2017, there were cases of local transmission in the US, although there have been no cases more recently. Although it’s unlikely you will come into contact with the virus, it’s wise to be aware of steps to take to prepare yourself if you’re in the US.
If you’re worried about Zika virus where you live, speak to your healthcare provider for tailored advice about your local region. If you’re thinking about booking a babymoon, pick a Zika-free destination.
Zika virus and pregnancy
If you are infected with Zika virus during pregnancy, you could pass the infection to your baby. It’s thought the infection travels across the placenta. If developing babies are infected with the Zika virus, they are at risk of microcephaly and other brain conditions. Not all Zika infections during pregnancy result in microcephaly. Zika virus could also be linked to miscarriage, stillbirth and congenital Zika syndrome. Researchers are still trying to learn about the impact of Zika virus infection on developing babies.
What is microcephaly?
The birth defect called microcephaly is a congenital condition, characterized by an abnormal smallness of the head. The condition is also associated with incomplete brain development. Brain growth prompts head growth during pregnancy in developing babies so microcephaly can be associated with an underdeveloped brain.
Zika virus prevention
If you’re currently pregnant or hoping to try for a baby soon, here are some steps you can take to prevent Zika virus infection:
Avoid Zika-affected areas
You should avoid Zika-affected areas unless it’s unavoidable. Pregnant women are advised to avoid areas with recent transmissions where possible. Check government advice before booking a vacation.
Avoid unprotected sex with an infected person
If you know your partner is infected, it’s best to avoid sex altogether for now. Some people might be asymptomatic during infection, so it’s best to use a barrier protection (such as a condom or dental dam) if your partner has recently returned from a Zika-affected area.
Use insect repellant
Check that the insect repellant is safe for pregnant women before application. Insect repellent could keep mosquitoes at bay and protect you from infected bugs. Apply the insect repellant after sunscreen to ensure maximum protection from mosquito bites.
Keep as much of your skin covered as possible, giving the mosquitoes a smaller target. Wear long sleeves and long trousers to keep your limbs covered. To keep cool during pregnancy, wear long-sleeved shirts and loose-fitting long pants, which will also help protect your sensitive skin from the sun. Wearing socks will protect your feet from bug bites. It’s possible to get insect repellent to spray on your clothes, for added protection from mosquito bites.
Make indoor spaces safe
Air conditioning and insect screens will help to keep indoor spaces mosquito-free. If you’re sleeping in a room without an insect screen, hang a mosquito net above your bed to keep you safe at night.
Remove standing water
Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water – even in tiny amounts of standing water – so you’ll need to be vigilant to keep mosquitoes at bay. Make sure buckets and other vessels are upturned to prevent water pooling.
Is there a Zika virus vaccine?
Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine for the Zika virus infection. Although scientists are working hard to understand more about this infection, they have not yet developed a vaccine.
Zika virus during pregnancy
If you have recently traveled to a Zika-affected area, or you’ve had unprotected sex with somebody who has, and have developed the symptoms listed below, contact your healthcare provider. If you developed the symptoms within the past fortnight, it might be possible to run tests to confirm whether or not you have a Zika infection.
Pregnancy screenings do not routinely test for Zika virus.
Signs and symptoms of Zika virus in pregnancy
Zika virus is usually a mild infection and lasts less than a week. Symptoms usually begin between two and seven days after exposure to the virus.
Possible symptoms are:
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Eye pain.
Zika virus exposure during pregnancy
If you have been exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy or are worried you might be infected, you should contact your healthcare provider for advice. Though there is no medicine or specific treatment to treat Zika virus infection, your healthcare provider will still need to know you suffered from a Zika virus infection during pregnancy. You might be offered additional monitoring, to keep an eye on your baby for the remainder of your pregnancy.
Zika virus during pregnancy
If you fall ill with Zika virus during pregnancy, you should:
- Get plenty of rest; this will help your body fight the infection
- Drink plenty of fluids, to prevent dehydration.
- Contact your healthcare provider. Your midwife or obstetrician needs to know if you have contracted Zika virus during pregnancy. They might want to run tests or advise you on managing your symptoms. Pregnant women might be offered additional scans to monitor development throughout pregnancy.
How long after Zika can I get pregnant?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise men to wait three months and women to wait two months after returning from a Zika-affected area or, if they caught the Zika virus, after the symptoms have cleared. According to the CDC: ‘The waiting period is longer for men because Zika stays in semen longer than in other body fluids’.
Most people with Zika virus infection are asymptomatic, so it’s important to wait before trying to conceive. Just because your partner doesn’t feel unwell after returning from a Zika-affected area, doesn’t mean he or she hasn’t transmitted the infection.