Know the dan­gers of Zika virus

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

One of the pri­mary goals of pub­lic health is to ed­u­cate peo­ple so they can make bet­ter de­ci­sions that af­fect their safety and well-be­ing. There are few bet­ter ex­am­ples than steps prospec­tive par­ents can take to pro­tect their ba­bies from Zika virus. Last year, sci­en­tists knew that the virus could cause mas­sive amounts of dam­age to ba­bies in utero, but a lot of im­por­tant de­tails were still un­known. Here are some up­dates that may help prospec­tive par­ents safe­guard their ba­bies’ health.

As you may al­ready know, the Zika virus is par­tic­u­larly de­struc­tive to the brain cells in a de­vel­op­ing fe­tus. Re­search con­tin­ues to show that Zika is only trans­mit­ted in one of two ways. Ei­ther through mos­quito bites or through sex­ual trans­mis­sion. To this point, close to 1,900 women from 44 states, in­clud­ing Mary­land, have been in­fected just be­fore or dur­ing preg­nancy. Al­most all of these women ac­quired Zika while trav­el­ing out­side the coun­try. A small num­ber were in­fected by mos­quito bites in south­ern Florida or along the Gulf Coast of Texas.

About 10 per­cent of women in­fected with Zika gave birth to ba­bies who had ma­jor dam­age to their brains. For women in­fected dur­ing the first three months of a preg­nancy, this num­ber rose to 15 per­cent. Birth de­fects in­clude de­struc­tion of ar­eas of the brain nec­es­sary for thought and speech, trou­ble with ba­sic mus­cle move­ments, and blind­ness. Women in­fected early in preg­nancy have higher rates of mis­car­riage, and those in­fected later are more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence still­birth.

Equally trou­bling is that for the fore­see­able fu­ture, there are no vac­cines to pre­vent Zika or treat­ments for preg­nant women who be­come in­fected. Tax­payer dol­lars that fund re­search at the NIH and CDC are go­ing to­ward the devel­op­ment of vac­cines and med­i­ca­tions, but suc­cess­ful in­ter­ven­tions may be years away.

De­spite the lack of treat­ment, there is a crit­i­cal step you can take to pre­vent the dam­age caused by Zika. For any cou­ple con­sid­er­ing preg­nancy, or in the midst of a preg­nancy, the ad­vice is sim­ple. Nei­ther part­ner should travel to ar­eas of the world with ac­tive trans­mis­sion of the Zika virus. If you don’t get in­fected with Zika, your baby stays safe. This vol­un­tary travel re­stric­tion is the strong rec­om­men­da­tion of the ex­perts at the CDC, and as a board cer­ti­fied ob­ste­tri­cian, I com­pletely agree. It’s just not worth the risk.

For preg­nant women who have al­ready booked a trip to an area with Zika, air­lines and travel com­pa­nies will usu­ally waive change fees and al­low you to choose al­ter­na­tive des­ti­na­tions as long as you have a doc­tor’s note ver­i­fy­ing your preg­nancy and the need for new travel plans.

If a woman or her part­ner feels com­pelled to travel to an area with Zika, please take all ap­pro­pri­ate pre­cau­tions to min­i­mize the po­ten­tial for mos­quito bites. These in­clude long sleeve shirts, long pants, and an ef­fec­tive mos­quito re­pel­lent. Re­pel­lents ap­plied to the skin are safe dur­ing preg­nancy. Zika virus is not. When you re­turn, let your ob­ste­tri­cian know about your trip so ap­pro­pri­ate test­ing can be per­formed to check for signs of in­fec­tion.

For those cou­ples not cur­rently preg­nant and trav­el­ling to an area with Zika, be­gin us­ing re­li­able con­tra­cep­tion prior to your trip and con­tinue con­tra­cep­tion for at least two months after re­turn­ing home. Keep in mind that 50 per­cent of preg­nan­cies are not planned. Un­ex­pected preg­nan­cies are one thing. Un­ex­pected preg­nan­cies while in­fected with a virus as de­struc­tive as Zika are an­other.

The Calvert County Health De­part­ment’s web­site www.calverthealth.org has plenty of sup­ple­men­tal in­for­ma­tion and links to other re­li­able health re­sources. As you travel this sum­mer, have fun and stay safe.

Dr. Larry Pol­sky, Prince Frederick The writer is the health of­fi­cer for the Calvert County Health De­part­ment.

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