What you should know about the Zika virus

January 19, 2016

You may have heard of the Zika virus and be wondering about possible dangers and who should be concerned. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus, meaning that a mosquito is infected by biting an infected person, and then can pass the virus on to other humans when it bites additional people.

Concern for pregnant women

Zika is similar to the viruses that cause yellow fever and dengue fever, but the symptoms of illness may be much milder. Typically, they include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). However, in pregnant women there is growing concern that Zika can cause birth defects or even death of the infant.

At this point, there is not causative proof that Zika causes specific birth defects, but we know there is increasing evidence suggesting that this is true. Health care workers first became suspicious when increasing numbers of babies in Brazil were born with microcephaly, a condition where the infant’s head is smaller than normal and the brain can be underdeveloped, leading to chronic problems.

Zika case in Hawaii

Zika was found in the amniotic fluid (the fluid surrounding a fetus in the womb) of two women carrying babies with microcephaly in Brazil. It also was found in the brains of two Brazilian infants who died shortly after birth.

There has been concern recently that Zika is spreading to parts of the US. On January 15, Hawaii confirmed its first case of Zika in a baby born with microcephaly. The mother of this infant is suspected of contracting Zika early in her pregnancy while living in Brazil. There have been more than 20 Zika infections diagnosed in the US. In all of these cases, the infections were acquired during travel in other countries.

CDC advice

What should pregnant women (or those trying to become pregnant) do? The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently is advising the following:

  • Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to countries with active Zika virus transmission. These currently include Haiti, Martinique, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela, but check updated listings before traveling to this part of the world.
  • If you are pregnant and cannot postpone your travel, you should talk with your doctor first and follow strict precautions to avoid mosquito bites during your trip. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, choose an EPA-registered insect repellant and use it according to the product directions.
  • Women trying to become pregnant should consult with their doctor before travel, and also follow steps to prevent mosquito bites.
  • If you are pregnant and develop a fever, rash, joint pain or red eyes within two weeks after traveling to a country where the Zika virus has been reported, talk with your doctor about your symptoms and travel history.

If you have questions, talk to a Swedish health care provider.