Know the dangers of Zika virus
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.