Pregnant? What you need to know about the Zika virus
A new virus known as the Zika virus has started to make headlines, and with good reason: its recent spread in Brazil has been linked to a huge increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly. Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a warning that pregnant women should avoid travel to Brazil and 12 other Latin American or Caribbean countries. Those who plan to become pregnant should also talk with their doctors before making such travel plans.
Microcephaly is when a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain. This is the result of the brain and the baby’s head not growing at the normal rate while the baby is developing in the uterus. Some children with microcephaly have no issues, while others can have developmental delays, such as problems with learning or walking. More severe cases can lead to stillbirth. Many things can cause microcephaly: genetic disorders, exposure to certain toxic chemicals while pregnant, and alcoholism.
The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes, much like the West Nile virus or yellow fever. In this past year, doctors in Brazil realized that more than 3,500 babies had been born with microcephaly — and the normal number of cases is about 150 per year. Futher investigation linked this spike in birth defects with the Zika virus. Evidence of the virus was found in the amniotic fluid and brain tissue of babies with microcephaly.
Most people (up to 80 percent) infected with the Zika virus show no symptoms, while those who do may have a fever, rash, or red eyes. These symptoms usually go away on their own without any treatment.
Women who are pregnant, however, and especially those in the first trimester, are at higher risk, since the virus seems to be able to spread to the uterus and affect the baby. This is how microcephaly can then occur, but how exactly it causes brain damage is still a mystery to scientists.
The first case of microcephaly associated with Zika virus has just been reported in the United States, with a baby in Hawaii being affected. The mother of this baby had travelled to Brazil during her pregnancy, where it is assumed she contracted the virus. As of now, CDC officials predict that this virus will likely spread in other tropical parts of the country (such as Florida and the Gulf Coast), but no other cases have been reported yet.
So what can a pregnant woman do to avoid getting the Zika virus? The most important thing would be to avoid travel to countries that the CDC has issued warnings for. If you live in areas in the U.S. that may be affected, use common sense to avoid mosquito bites: bug repellant, staying indoors during mosquito outbreaks, and getting rid of standing water around your home (where mosquitoes like to breed). If you are pregnant and have recently traveled to Brazil, check in with your doctor to discuss this issue and hopefully put your mind at ease.