There is a lot of confusion and anxiety regarding the Zika virus and how it affects pregnant women. It’s important to remember that there are still a lot of unknowns at this time. We simply don’t know all of the details.
We do know that the virus is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. It is common in parts of Africa, which has not reported a link to any birth defects. It has only recently spread to the western hemisphere, and different outcomes may be found in a population with no immunity to a disease.
In 2014, there were less than 150 cases of microcephaly in Brazil. Between October and now, there have been over 4000 cases reported; over 30% of these cases have been reported in a poor state without adequate health care.
Microcephaly is a rare neurological condition in which children have small heads, usually due to abnormal brain development. While we do not know if this increase in microcephaly is due to the Zika virus, we do know that the RNA for this virus has been found in the amniotic fluid, placentas, and brains in some of these cases.
Additional testing is showing that some infants without microcephaly have brain lesions; this may also be linked with the Zika virus. Public health care workers are trying to learn if this is merely a correlation, or if the Zika virus is causing the infection.
Part of the increase in microcephaly may be due to increased media attention and health care workers becoming better at diagnosing the condition. Additionally, some babies with small heads may be misdiagnosed as having microcephaly when they do not.
80% of those who contract the Zika virus are asymptomatic; most of the rest have only minor symptoms, and it is difficult to test to see if there was a past Zika infection. An additional complication arises when you consider the differences in the equipment in the different parts of the country; poorer parts of the country are diagnosing through ultrasound rather than the preferred CT scan. It is hard to get accurate figures without similar equipment. Brazil’s recession makes it harder for the government to respond appropriately. However, the World Health Organization and governments from other countries have helped with additional testing.
The Zika virus is spreading. It has been confirmed in 20 countries. The mosquito which carries the disease has been found in even more countries. There has been no increase in the number of cases of microcephaly outside of Brazil, although epidemiological studies have shown that there was an increase in microcephaly during the Zika virus outbreak of 2013-2014 in French Polynesia.
Until more is known regarding how the Zika virus affects pregnancy, pregnant women planning a vacation to Central or South America should find out if the Zika virus has reached their destination. A great website with accurate, up-to-date information is https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel. You can enter your destination, mark that you are pregnant, and get information regarding the virus in that location. If the Zika virus has been found in the area where you plan to travel, the Center for Disease Control recommends postponing travel your travel plans. While the first trimester is considered to be the most dangerous time, there is no evidence that later travel during pregnancy would be safer.
Whether you are going on vacation or hanging out in San Antonio, taking normal precautions against mosquito bites is wise. A good bug repellent, long-sleeve clothing, and wearing clothing treated with permethrin can all decrease the risk of being bitten by mosquitoes.
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