By now you’ve heard about Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has swept across Central and South America and the Caribbean in recent months. In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika outbreak to be an international public health emergency.
While the symptoms of Zika, which include fever, rash and joint pain, are usually mild, people are most concerned about the suspected link between the virus an upsurge in Brazil of cases of abnormally small heads (microcephaly), a serious birth defect that causes a child to have a below-average-sized head and hinders brain development.
As a Zika infection can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth, the WHO is advising pregnant women and women who are considering having a child to avoid travel to countries affected by Zika.
Here are 4 important things you should know about Zika if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy:
1. Zika does not naturally occur in the UK
The species of Aedes mosquitoes that are believed to transmit Zika virus are not present in the UK. However, that doesn’t mean that staying in the UK will keep you infection-free. The virus can in rare cases be transmitted via sexual intercourse. Therefore, if you’re expecting and have a male partner who has visited a country that has been hit by Zika, you should use condoms for at least 28 days following his return, even if he has not felt unwell. If he has experienced symptoms and an infection was confirmed with a blood test, you should use condoms for at least six months.
2. Most people have no symptoms
Eighty percent of people infected with Zika experience no symptoms at all. If symptoms (mild fever, joint pain, conjunctivitis, rash and headache) do appear, they typically subside within a week. Because symptoms do not always manifest, pregnant women who are infected might not know that they’re at risk of passing the virus to their baby.
If you’re pregnant and have returned from a Zika-affected country, you should consult with your GP or midwife whether or not you have symptoms. If you feel unwell, your GP will arrange a blood test to confirm an infection. If you’re trying to get pregnant and have recently visited a Zika-affected country, wait at least 28 days following your return before you start trying again.
3. The link between Zika virus and microcephaly is yet to be confirmed
At present, doctors strongly suspect that a Zika infection in utero can lead to microcephaly but they are not yet positive. That said, the statistics paint a disturbing picture. In 2014 Brazil reported less than 150 cases of microcephaly. Since October 2015, when the Zika outbreak really picked up, there have been nearly 5,000 reported cases of microcephaly, less than 15 percent of which have been confirmed.
An important development to monitor is the extent to which other countries that have been hit hard by Zika, including Colombia, El Salvador and Venezuela, see an increase in microcephaly cases. Since Zika struck these countries some time after the outbreak began in Brazil, many expecting mothers who might have been infected with the virus will not give birth until later this year. In what many saw as an extreme measure, health officials in El Salvador have advised women to delay pregnancy until 2018.
4. There’s only one method for preventing a Zika infection
Though pharmaceutical makers have jumped at the opportunity to develop a Zika vaccine, one will not be widely available for at least several years. Currently, the best way to prevent getting infected with Zika is to avoid mosquito bites. If you are traveling to a country with a Zika outbreak, be sure to wear loose clothes with long sleeves, use an insect repellent that contains DEET (which is safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women), and try to stay indoors as much as possible. Note that Aedes mosquitoes, the mosquitoes that transmit Zika, mostly bite during the day, especially mid-morning and late afternoon.