By now you’ve heard the buzz about the Zika virus, a primarily mosquito-transmitted
infection currently spreading through tropical areas in the Western hemisphere.
In late February, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed Zika infections
in nine pregnant U.S. women. All of the women contracted the virus during
travels to countries that have had Zika outbreaks.
“Although scientists have known about Zika since 1947, it is unfamiliar
to the American public, and there are questions about its linkage to birth
defects that remain unanswered," says
Lina Wong, DO, a board-certified obstetrics/gynecology physician at
St. Jude Heritage Medical Group. "Not enough is known to determine whether or not a definitive connection
exists, so until these questions can be answered, the Center for Diseases
Control (CDC) has advised expectant moms to stay away from territories
known to be infected," he/she adds.
Let’s take a look at some of the things we do know about the virus,
and how expectant moms can manage or reduce their risk of exposure.
Where is the Zika virus most commonly found?
Zika is not widespread in the United States. However, the number of cases
reported is likely to grow beyond the nine confirmed cases to date as
Americans travel to regions affected by the virus. And as infected mosquitoes
enter the United States, Zika may start to appear in places, such as the
Gulf Coast, that already host multiple species of mosquito and are known
for their warm climate and areas of stagnant water.
Countries with tropical climates offer the most hospitable breeding environments
for mosquitos. Countries from Jamaica, down the archipelago to Curacao,
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela,
Columbia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador are known to be linked to Zika
How does the Zika virus spread?
The virus is carried by the same mosquito that causes dengue and yellow
fever and is transmitted when the mosquito bites an individual. Most cases
have been contracted this way. However, the virus can live in semen up
to two weeks longer than in blood, and can be transmitted from a man to
his partner through sexual contact. No evidence has been found to suggest
that it can be spread from a woman to her partner through sexual contact.
People cannot transmit Zika through casual contact.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms of the virus are fever, rash, joint pain and red
eyes. Only one in every five people with Zika will experience any symptoms.
Expectant mothers who may have been exposed to the virus and are experiencing
any of these symptoms should contact their healthcare provider right away.
Does contracting Zika while pregnant cause birth defects?
In South America, a correlation between the increase of Zika virus outbreaks
and the increase in a birth defect called microcephaly has been noted.
However, not enough is known at this stage to confirm whether or not the
Zika virus is the direct cause. Microcephaly is a birth defect in which
the size of the baby's head is smaller than it should be, relative
to its size and age. It indicates that the baby's brain has not developed properly.
I’m pregnant. Should I cancel my travel plans?
There may be a connection between the growing number of cases of microcephaly—a
rare birth defect--in South America and the Zika virus. Until more information
is known, it’s best for pregnant women to avoid traveling to infected
areas. Dr. Wong advises, “Check the CDC or other public agencies
for any travel advisories regarding Zika outbreaks.”
Can expectant moms pass the virus onto their unborn child?
Yes, they can. Because the Zika virus is carried in the blood, it can be
passed on to the fetus.
I'm pregnant and have been exposed to the Zika virus, what should I do?
If you are pregnant and have been exposed to the virus, contact your healthcare
provider immediately. This is especially important if you developed a
rash, fever, joint pain or red eyes during a trip to areas of Zika outbreaks,
or within two weeks after returning from it. There are guidelines in place
to assist physicians in deciding what tests are necessary and determining
I wasn’t pregnant when I traveled to an infected territory, but am
now. What should I do?
The Zika virus typically only stays in your system for one week. If you
are concerned that you may have conceived during your travels and exposed
the fetus to the virus, contact your health care provider.
Can Zika affect future planned pregnancies?
Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that prior exposure to Zika
will affect future planned pregnancies. The virus typically only survives
for one week in the blood and up to two weeks in semen. If you are planning
to get pregnant ensure that you wait a minimum of two weeks before trying
to conceive if either yourself or your male partner have been exposed
to the virus.
What can I do to prevent contracting the Zika virus?
If you are pregnant, the CDC strongly recommends avoiding travel to territories
known to host the Zika virus. If you must travel to a tropical country
or a country where Zika has spread, take precautions to reduce the risk
of being bitten by mosquitoes. Insect repellant is by far the best way
to prevent this. Look for a repellant that has a higher concentration
of active ingredients such as oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), PMD, DEET
or picaridin. It’s also recommended to wear long-sleeved shirts
and pants when outdoors, and stay in rooms that are screened, have air
conditioning or offer mosquito netting over beds when traveling in regions
where mosquitos are abundant.
If your partner is male and has recently traveled to a region affected
by Zika, avoid sexual contact for a minimum of two weeks after his potential exposure.
What can I do to avoid spreading Zika to others?
“Mosquitoes are vectors for diseases other than Zika, like malaria,”
says Dr. Wong, “so to prevent Zika and other such diseases from
spreading to other humans, you and your partner should take preventative
measures to avoid being bitten by mosquitos, and keep your yard free of
mosquitos and pools of standing water where mosquitos can breed.”
If you have been traveling in a region affected by Zika, postpone giving
blood for about a month. Since Zika is a mosquito-borne virus, it is theoretically
possible to get Zika through a transfusion of infected blood, but only
a handful of suspected such cases have been reported worldwide.
If you are male and have lived in or visited areas known to host the virus,
the best way to ensure the virus doesn’t spread through semen is
to abstain from sexual contact for a minimum of two weeks after being
exposed. If, however, you remain sexually active during this time, you
should use a condom for protection.
Is there a cure or treatment?
There is no cure for Zika, but once an individual has contracted the infection,
they become immune to repeated infection. “Over-the-counter pain
medication can help with the aches and pains, and can lower fever,”
notes Dr. Wong.
How long does the virus last?
It usually takes one week for the virus to clear out of your system, but
can survive up to two weeks in semen. Most people who come down with Zika
Can I be tested for the virus?
There is no widely available test for the virus, but if blood samples are
taken in the first week of infection, it is possible to detect the infection
by using the same methods used to test dengue fever.
Learn more about
Dr. Wong. Learn more
St. Jude Heritage Medical Group.