It seems like just a few days ago we were hearing for the first time about the Zika virus, and now the World Health Organization has updated it to a global emergency. The media is using buzz words like “pandemic potential,” which in itself is enough to freak out readers. With the recent Ebola outbreak still fresh in our minds, any news about a new pandemic is enough to send shivers down our spine. For most of us, though, the Zika virus really is no big deal. For pregnant women, though, the threat becomes enough of a concern to make canceling those vacation plans to the tropics a pretty smart decision.
What is the Zika Virus?
I’ll try to keep this part brief, because you can read the WHO fact sheet and find out for yourself. While Zika sounds more like the name of an exotic supermodel, it’s actually a pretty mellow virus transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, found in Africa, Mexico & northern South America (the warmer parts, not that part down there closer to Antartica), Southern Asia and the Western Pacific. You know, some of the places on the top of our travel bucket lists for winter vacations.
The Aedes mosquito is pretty famous for its role in spreading some other nastier viruses, including dengue and yellow fever. Honestly, if you’re playing a game of “would you rather contract” with the viruses transmitted by the Aedes, this is the one you’d pick. Why? Well, let’s check out the symptoms:
- slight fever
- maybe conjunctivitis (pink eye)
- maybe muscle and joint pain
- maybe fatigue
All of this lasts between 2-7 days. Only the slight fever and rash are present in most people. The rest are just “maybes.” Not so bad, really. Not fun, of course. No one wakes up and says “gee, today I’d like a rash with a side of pink eye and fatigue,” but still, I’ve had colds worse than that. In fact, I currently HAVE a cold worse than that. I even have the aches and pains because my dog tried to kill me this week. No joke. She laid right in my path and I tripped over her. Okay, so it was my fault for being blinded by my Snuggie cape, but still.
According to the European Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, 60-80% of people don’t even show symptoms. There are no fatalities associated with Zika as of this moment. For the most part, it’s only spread through mosquito bites at this point, with one very important caveat: there have been reported cases of mothers infecting their unborn babies. THIS is where we get serious. This is also where it stops being “no big deal” and starts becoming a threat. Still, it’s a very manageable threat.
Zika Virus in pregnant women: what you need to know
UPDATE: As of February 2nd, the WHO has updated the ZIKA virus to a Global Health Emergency. This is a rare step for them, considering the virus is still not fatal. Symptoms have not changed. The update is due to the very possible link to the birth defects discussed below.
First, it’s important to note that, at this point, the connection between Zika virus and harm to your unborn baby is still being researched. It’s not definitive. I don’t like when news stories start with “well, you went to Brazil and got bit by a mosquito, now your baby is doomed” type messages, then bury the “oh, by the way, this is all still speculative” at the bottom. So if you DID just get back from one of the affected area and you’re feeling feverish, go to your doctor (now, please), but don’t start panicking yet, okay?
Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about what we know so far. Which, honestly, isn’t a whole lot. The story: Zika virus causes microcephaly and other potential issues in babies of moms who were infected while they were pregnant. So much so that Brazil has actually started encouraging women to delay their attempts at conceiving until the threat has passed. Microcephaly is a medical term for “your baby’s head is much smaller than it should be.” Medically smaller, not, “petite” smaller. It can cause some pretty serious issues, including:
- Speech delays and other developmental delays
- Learning disabilities
- Motor skills problems
- Feeding challenges
- Vision problems
- Hearing loss
Again, the CDC and other world disease prevention centers are still further investigating the link. WHO is calling it an “extraordinary event,” taking a “better safe than sorry” stance. In the mean time, though, they’ve advised pregnant women to consider postponing trips to affected areas.
If you DO have non-refundable tickets and want to make the trip, it’s imperative that you take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. This means using an EPA-approved mosquito repellent, which the CDC says is safe to use during pregnancy. If you’re concerned about the chemicals in bug repellent, my advice is to skip traveling to Zika-infected areas. That came out snippier than I intend it to, but I think it’s the only thing that makes sense. You either protect yourself or you cancel the trip. If a whole country is saying “stop making babies until we figure this out,” that’s enough to make me want to strongly caution you.
If you are actively trying to conceive, keep in mind that the Zika virus remains in your blood for about a week after the infection. While experts aren’t sure if getting pregnant after the virus has run its course can cause issues, it may be a good idea to skip trying that month. If you do find out you’re pregnant right after getting over the Zika virus, make sure you let your doctor know you were infected.
Again, all of this is still under investigation by medical researchers. If you just got back from a tropical vacation and you found a mosquito bite, don’t freak out. Remember, not every mosquito carries the virus, not every person who gets bit gets the virus and not every pregnant woman who gets the virus passes it to their unborn baby. There are a lot of “not every’s” in that sentence to give you solace. Still, I was pregnant once, I know telling you to chill isn’t much help. So go to your doctor. You should do that anyway. I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one in my fantasy TV show.
What do you think about this Zika virus news? Are you concerned about it? Have you canceled any travel plans because of it? Tell me in the comments.