The Zika virus and pregnancy: What you need to know

January 29, 2016 Tanya Sorensen

If you’re pregnant or planning to be, you may be paying attention to the news about the Zika virus. Here is an update about what we know so far.

Zika’s spread

The Zika virus is a tropical infection spread by mosquitoes. It has been recognized in Africa and Asia since the 1940s, but is new to the Americas. It is related to the viruses that cause dengue and yellow fever. In the last year, it has appeared in South America and spread rapidly throughout the Western Hemisphere. We are now hearing of cases in the US.

Possible link to microcephaly

Zika causes symptoms -- fever, rash, aches, red eyes -- in only about 1 in 5 people who contract it, and the virus rarely requires hospitalization. The concern around the epidemic is a possible link to a rare birth defect known as microcephaly. Microcephaly is characterized by a small head and abnormal brain and is linked to intellectual and motor dysfunction.

We do not know how Zika might cause brain damage in fetuses. In fact, although there is some compelling evidence (such as the virus being found in a few affected babies and their amniotic fluid), it is not entirely certain that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the virus and microcephaly.

Caution for pregnant women

With the rise of Zika in Brazil, there has been a corresponding rapid rise in cases of microcephaly. No one knows how many pregnant women who have had Zika infection have also had babies with microcephaly. Nonetheless, caution is urged.

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika. Testing for the virus can be done, but at present only in specialized laboratories.

When to be tested

Current recommendations for pregnant women include postponing travel to affected areas. If travel cannot be avoided, the most effective prevention is to avoid mosquito bites. If you have traveled to an affected area and have symptoms within weeks of exposure, testing for the virus is recommended.

In addition, whether or not you have had symptoms or a positive test, serial ultrasounds for microcephaly may be considered in consultation with your obstetric provider. Knowledge about the Zika outbreak is rapidly evolving, and we expect new recommendations to be forthcoming. Stay in touch with your provider for updates, or visit the CDC website.

If you don’t have an OB-GYN but have questions, find a Providence provider near you.

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