For years, Zika was a virus that was not very well known because it was contained to a narrow equatorial belt from Africa to Asia. More recently, news about Zika has flooded U.S. media outlets as the spread of the virus across the Pacific Ocean has turned epidemic.
Since Zika popped up in Brazil in 2015, infections have been reported in dozens of countries and territories in the Americas and the Caribbean—and even more recently, cases have been reported in the hundreds in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most recent statistics show that there have been 756 cases of Zika in the U.S., and 234 of them were pregnant women.
Unfortunately, the future of the fight against Zika isn’t looking very bright. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the virus will continue to spread, and scientists warn that the virus has “explosive pandemic potential.”
If this news has you concerned, you’re not alone. Are you pregnant and thinking about traveling? Are you worried about your baby and possibly contracting the Zika virus?
Here is everything you need to know to keep yourself, your family, and your baby protected.
What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus was originally discovered in monkeys in 1947 in the Zika forest of Uganda. The virus—which is related to dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus—stayed contained in the equatorial belt between Africa and Asia for more than 50 years, then began to spread, making its way across the Pacific Ocean to the Americas in 2007.
How is the virus spread?
When a mosquito bites and draws blood from an infected person, it contracts the virus. Then the mosquito can carry the virus to another person, infecting them when it bites and draws blood again.
Recently, it’s also been discovered that Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact with an infected individual.
The virus can also be spread from mother to unborn baby in utero or around the time of birth. Fortunately, even though the virus stays in the mother’s blood for a few days to a week, future pregnancies don’t seem to be affected by previous infection—so a baby conceived after the virus has left the mother’s body won’t contract or be affected by Zika.
What are the symptoms?
The good news is that in healthy adults, infection with Zika typically causes no symptoms or only results in very mild ones.
Sometimes infected people experience symptoms similar to those associated with contraction of dengue fever, including a low-grade fever, headache, rash, muscle and joint pain, and sometimes pink eye. Infection symptoms can last several days to a week.
Studies show that only 20 percent of people infected with the Zika virus will actually become ill, but unfortunately more serious cases (although rare) can get pretty bad and result in an illness known as Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Even though infection with Zika in adults is typically benign, problems arise when a pregnant woman contracts the virus, as it can spread to her unborn baby. The results and complications associated with this situation can be devastating.
The most common complications of contracting Zika during pregnancy are miscarriage and severe deformity of the unborn child in the form of microcephaly (an abnormally small head and brain). Children born with this deformity often suffer developmental delays, seizures, and mental retardation.
New cases have also presented with children who have additional symptoms including glaucoma, hearing loss, vision problems, and impaired growth.
Zika still has experts guessing, though. Scientists remain unclear as to how likely it is that the infection in a pregnant woman will be passed on to her unborn child, whether the fetus will show symptoms in utero, and whether pregnancy makes women more susceptible to the virus.
Furthermore, they still don’t know why Zika causes some women to miscarry a pregnancy.
How is Zika treated?
Currently, there is no specific treatment for Zika, but the CDC recommends rest and fluids to prevent dehydration.
How can you protect yourself and your unborn baby from Zika?
Unfortunately, there are no medications or vaccines that prevent or cure Zika. The best way to protect yourself from contracting the virus is to avoid travel to areas of the world that are affected.
Travel warnings have been issued by health agencies and governments globally, and Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Jamaica have gone as far as to advise women to postpone getting pregnant until more is known about the risks.
If you have to travel to Zika-affected areas, experts recommend that you take every possible precaution to avoid getting bitten by a mosquito.
Try to limit exposed skin by wearing long sleeves or pants (rather than shorts, tanks, or t-shirts). Use a bug spray that contains DEET, which is safe for pregnant and nursing women.
Make sure there is no standing water in or around your home or where you’re staying, because wet areas can be breeding grounds for mosquitos.
Finally, consider treating your clothes with an insecticide like permethrin.
If your partner has traveled to an area that has been affected by Zika, it’s very important to protect yourself during sexual intercourse. Experts recommend abstinence or the use of condoms for six months if a male partner has shown symptoms (or traveled to an area where local mosquitos transmit Zika). Abstinence or safe sex are advised for eight weeks if a female partner might be infected.
Can you get tested for the Zika virus?
If you have traveled to a known Zika-affected area, or have been exposed to Zika by a partner who has traveled to one of these areas, your doctor may choose to run blood or urine tests.
Unfortunately, the FDA hasn’t approved a commercially available test for the virus, but the CDC does recommend all pregnant women be assessed for Zika during their prenatal visits.
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be experiencing symptoms to test positive for the virus.
In fact, CDC guidelines urge women who have traveled to countries affected by Zika to be tested, whether they are symptomatic or not.
They also recommend that women who live in Zika-affected areas be tested for the virus twice during pregnancy: once when their pregnancy is confirmed by their doctor and again in the middle of the second trimester. The unborn baby should be examined via ultrasound as well.
What does the future hold for the fight against Zika?
Even though there’s currently no vaccine for Zika, recent research indicates breakthroughs could be coming soon.
Scientists from Florida State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the National Institutes of Health have found certain drugs that show promise in preventing the virus from replicating in the body and also from affecting fetal cells. Additionally, the same researchers may have discovered an antibody that has the ability to fight the virus.