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What pregnant women need to know about the Zika virus

January 27, 2016

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you may have heard about the recent outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil. This is especially concerning for pregnant women, as it appears that infection with the Zika virus during pregnancy may be associated with certain birth defects and poor pregnancy outcomes. 

If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, here are some things to keep in mind:

What is the Zika virus?

Zika virus is an illness spread to people through mosquito bites. Only certain mosquitos that carry this particular virus can spread the illness.

About one in five people who are infected with the virus will get sick, and the illness tends to be mild with symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain, headache or red eyes. Many people who have been infected with the Zika virus aren’t even aware they have it. 

Symptoms generally appear three to twelve days after receiving the mosquito bite. 

Why is the Zika virus a concern for pregnant women?

Along with the appearance of the Zika virus in Brazil, there has been a significant increase in babies born in Brazil with a rare birth defect known as microcephaly. These children’s heads are unusually smaller than other babies of the same size and age, and they often have a range of physical and developmental problems. 

Public health officials caution that they do not yet know how many of the cases of microcephaly are related to a mother’s infection with the Zika virus during pregnancy; they are currently investigating this along with other potential causes of microcephaly (such as infection with other illnesses, nutrition and environmental causes). 

In an abundance of caution, a travel warning has been issued for pregnant women traveling to areas where Zika transmission is occurring. 

Where has the virus been found?

Prior to 2015, Zika virus infections were confined to specific areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. However, March 2015 marked the first confirmed reports of Zika virus transmitted in Brazil. 

Countries where the Zika virus has since been found include: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Venezuela, Cape Verde, Samoa. 

Although travelers returning from other countries have been treated for the virus upon return to the United States, no transmission of the virus in the U.S. has been reported. 

What should I do?

For now the most effective way to prevent this illness is to avoid travel to areas with an ongoing outbreak, if possible. 

If you do travel to an area where the virus is being spread, protect yourself from mosquito bites by using an insect repellant containing DEET, staying indoors or within a screened area, covering exposed skin with long pants and sleeves or treating your clothes with permethrin.  

It is important for pregnant women to know that insect repellants containing DEET which are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as children older than two months of age. 

When using insect repellants, follow these recommendations:

  • Check the label for active ingredients and choose a product that contains between 10 and 30 percent DEET. 
  • Apply only to exposed skin and clothing; don’t apply underneath clothing.
  • Don’t apply to eyes or mouth and use sparingly around ears. 
  • Don’t spray on the face; instead spray into your hands and then apply to your face.
  • Don’t use insect repellants on broken or irritated skin. If your skin becomes irritated after use, wash the area and see a doctor if needed. 

The areas where the virus is active will likely change over time so be sure to discuss any future travel plans with your obstetrician.

For more in-depth information regarding the Zika virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

If you need help determining which insect repellant is right for you, see recommendations provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.