During 2015 healthcare workers in Brazil noticed an increase in the number of infants born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly. At the same time, there was a significant increase in Zika virus infections. Although it is not yet known how, or even if, this infection is responsible for this otherwise rare birth defect, the timing is alarming.
Zika virus usually presents as a mild illness, characterized by fever, rash, arthralgia, or conjunctivitis. Symptoms typically last from several days to one week. 80% of infected individuals have no symptoms at all. The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and not from human to human. As of January 15, 2016 local transmission had been seen in 14 countries throughout South and Central America and Puerto Rico. To date, the only reported cases in the US are in people who have traveled to these areas, none of whom were pregnant. Since it is winter here and there are no mosquitoes around, there can be no spread from an infected person in our area.
Normally, such mild viral infections have no clinical significance in pregnant patients. However, out of an abundance of caution and until more is known about the association between Zika virus and microcephaly, the CDC has issued some guidelines for us. Most of these precautions center on prevention of exposure.
- Women who are pregnant, or planning on becoming pregnant in the near future should avoid travel to areas where Zika virus is common.
- If such travel is unavoidable, people should wear long sleeves and long pants.
- Use air conditioning or window and door screens when indoors.
- Liberal use of EPA approved mosquito repellants, including those with DEET is encouraged and is safe in pregnancy.
If you have traveled to South America within the last two weeks and think you may have symptoms of Zika virus, please let your provider know. Evaluation of risk may entail blood tests and sonograms to ensure normal fetal growth.
There is a lot about Zika virus infections we do not know yet. It is most likely this will prove to be a very rare cause of fetal defects, but please feel free to talk about your concerns with us.