Your bags are packed, passport in hand, a great new read is downloaded on your Kindle, and you are all set to jet off to a wonderfully tropical destination in the Caribbean or Mexico. But before you board that plane, if you have a growing bundle of joy in your belly, make sure and take note of a recent travel advisory issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
The Zika virus is transmitted through the bite of the Aedes mosquito, which is also the mosquito responsible for transmitting Chikungunya and Dengue viruses as well (click here or here for information on these viruses). Unlike the Culex species of mosquito that transmits West Nile Virus and mainly like to bite in the dawn and dusk hours, the Aedes mosquito prefers to feed on its host during the daytime hours. It is estimated that 80% of people who are infected with the Zika virus will have no symptoms at all, and the other 20% could have a very mild illness with symptoms such as fever, rash, red eyes and joint pain. These symptoms generally occur within 2-7 days after a person is infected with the virus, and the illness likely will last a few days to a week.
Since last year there has been more than a 23-fold increase in the number of cases of microcephaly throughout Brazil.
While that description of symptoms may sound like many other viral infections, the Zika virus is proving to be much more dangerous when it comes to pregnant women, and more specifically, to their unborn children. There has been an alarming increase in the number of cases of infants being born with abnormally small heads, known as microcephaly, in countries where the Zika virus runs rampant, specifically in Brazil. Since last year there has been more than a 25-fold increase in the number of cases of microcephaly throughout Brazil. Scientist are feverishly working to determine how strong the association between the Zika virus and these birth defects might be, but at this time, there is much concern as infants who were either born with microcephaly or died in the womb with signs of microcephaly have tested positive for the Zika virus. At this time it is believed that the Zika virus can be transmitted from a mother to her fetus during any trimester of pregnancy.
Viruses causing birth defects are nothing new. Viruses such as rubella, cytomegalovirus, parvo B19 and even chickenpox can be transmitted from a pregnant mother to the fetus and can cause a host of problems in a baby ranging from hearing loss to anemia to small size of the baby. However, most women have either been vaccinated against (think MMR and chickenpox vaccine) or have had these virus by the time they reach childbearing age, and therefore, already have immunity from these illnesses. Since the Zika virus is just emerging and there is no preventative vaccine, we do not have any protection from this virus.
There is so much about pregnancy that we cannot predict, so in my opinion, we should try to limit those things that are known risks.
The CDC issued a level 2 travel warning earlier this week cautioning about the risk of travel for pregnant women to 22 countries where Zika virus transmission is ongoing including several areas of the Caribbean and Mexico (you can click on the map below to see a full list of countries included in this travel warning). This is the first time the CDC has issued a travel warning specifically for pregnant women, and it is being done out of an abundance of caution as the relationship between the Zika virus and birth defects is still being investigated.
So what to do if you have your bags packed for your planned “babymoon” or relaxing vacation to one of these areas? I would put those travel plans on hold! We spend 9 months doing everything in our power to protect our growing little bundles of joy going as far as to give up our favorite raw sushi roll, our morning extra venti caffeinated latte, or foregoing your next skydiving adventure (not sure that I would ever be brave enough for that one honestly). There is so much about pregnancy that we cannot predict, so in my opinion, we should try to limit those things that are known risks. Until more is know about the Zika virus and how it may specifically affect a growing fetus, I would encourage pregnant women to err on the side of abundant caution and avoid travel to those areas inundated with the Zika virus.
If travel to one of the affected countries is unavoidable or for those living in these areas, make sure to take precautions against mosquito bites. Use either a DEET or Picaridin containing mosquito repellent at all times (remember, the Aedes mosquito likes to bite during the day and not only dusk ‘till dawn like other mosquitoes). Also, wear lightweight long sleeves and pants and even clothing that is permethrin-treated to cover as much of the skin as possible. Finally, if your lodging is open to the outdoors, make sure to have a mosquito bed net over where you will be sleeping.
I am not usually one to “sound the alarm” before I have a wealth of data and information in front of me, but the Zika virus and its possible association with a severe birth defect warrants our attention. While a change to travel plans is not convenient (especially when you have been looking forward to crystal blue water, sand between your toes, a beach chair and a virgin pina colada), the beaches will still be there in a few months, and scientist will have had the time to further research how a tiny virus from a pesky mosquito could cause lifelong problems for your still growing baby.