Over the past month, reports and rumors have been swirling about the Zika virus. Whenever there is fear of a disease, it is important to first know the facts. Here are a few questions you may have about the Zika virus, answered by health experts.
What is the virus, and what does it cause?
The Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in the 1940s, but most people had never heard of it until recently. This is because for decades, Zika outbreaks were sporadic, and the disease seemed to do little harm. This changed when a massive outbreak, affecting more than 1 million people in Brazil, caught worldwide attention.
“The Zika virus is from the Flaviviridae family,” said Karen Brust, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Scott & White Memorial Hospital – Temple.
This is the same family with West Nile and yellow fever, which have things in common with Zika including transmission by the bite from an infected mosquito. Zika virus is specifically spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
Reported symptoms of Zika virus include fever, rash, joint pain and redness of the eyes (conjunctivitis) that last for about a week. The virus remains in the blood of an infected person for only a few days to a week.
“There is no direct antiviral therapy,” Dr. Brust said. “Just rest and take acetaminophen.” Dr. Brust dealt with a case of Zika virus first-hand when her colleague came back from Bora Bora infected in 2014, and soon felt back to normal within two weeks.
How might it affect a woman’s pregnancy now or in the future?
Although usually manifested with mild symptoms, the virus has also been associated with the rise of a dangerous birth defect in Brazil called microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain. The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a public health emergency on February 1 due to the risk it poses to unborn babies.
Because of this condition, most of the fear of Zika virus surrounds pregnant women. Health experts are currently investigating the length of time the virus may stay in the blood, saliva or a male’s semen, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed one case through sexual transmission in Dallas. There are still relatively few reported cases of the Zika virus, so experts are still learning about the implications for pregnant women.
According to ABC news, the virus is believed to leave your blood when you recover, meaning any future pregnancies should be fine. The CDC has been very responsive with reliable information on the virus, providing a timely list of frequently asked questions for pregnant women. The CDC states the virus will not cause infections in an infant that is conceived after the virus is cleared from the blood, and there is currently no evidence of a risk of birth defects in future pregnancies.
LeAnn Haddock, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, routinely visits with pregnant women. She has found the CDC to be the most reliable place for the latest information on the Zika outbreak.
“There’s a lot of information out there that may not be exactly what we know, and the information is coming in so fast,” Dr. Haddock said. “The lifespan of this virus is about a week from what we can tell.”
“It is a virus that is worse during pregnancy, especially in the early trimesters,” Dr. Haddock said. “This is the case with a lot of viruses, and this time is a critical stage of development when the baby is growing. It can affect anytime during the pregnancy, and most people don’t even know they have it. This is very much an infancy stage, and we’re all still learning.”
Part of that learning, is preparing for the concerns pregnant women may have. To do this, Dr. Haddock gave all of her nurses a copy of the CDC’s recommendations and regularly visits with her patients to help dispel any fear.
“We talk about the basic guidelines and follow what the current recommendations are,” Dr. Haddock said. “This includes avoiding travel to any of the outbreak areas and using insect repellant.”
Dr. Brust says the best way to prevent Zika virus is to “protect from the mosquito bite itself.”
Dr. Haddock told CBS news that insect repellant with DEET is approved for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and the CDC released an informative guide to educate about the behavior of mosquitos, as well as which type of repellants to use to lessen the risk of illness.
Where is it found, and do we need to be concerned in the U.S.?
According to the CDC, no locally transmitted Zika cases have been reported in the continental United States, but cases have been reported in returning travelers. A total of 35 travel-associated Zika virus disease cases have been reported to CDC from the U.S.
Dr. Haddock said it is most important to talk about how this may impact you, instead of getting caught up in the fear of the virus.
“Think about what your exposure risk may be, and that’s the first place to start,” Dr. Haddock said. “Then take the necessary precautions.”
This includes following the most up-to-date travel notices and speaking to your doctor about any concerns you may have.
“As with anything in pregnancy, you need to be realistic, and you need to be honest,” Dr. Haddock said. “You need to follow guidelines and know what is known. I encourage my patients to have faith in their pregnancy and their health. To alleviate fears, I always recommend speaking with your doctor who knows both you and your developing baby the best.”