I have so many friends at the stage of life who are getting married and considering starting their family. Our generation already has cultural barriers that push our child-bearing years further and further into the future… we want to get our careers on track, we want to take one more awesome backpacking trip, we want to meet the perfect person and date and marry them and buy a house and then get pregnant… or we can’t get pregnant and need to invest in fertility treatments and now we have to worry about a tiny mosquito that happens to reside in all the best sunny beach destinations. Isn’t there enough standing between us and our fertility?! Since I have a background in public health I decided to nerd out a little and do some investigating on behalf of my friends who will be travelling to areas with the potential to come into contact with Zika. Here’s some general info to consider:
What is it? The Zika virus is a mosquito born illness that originated in Uganda in 1947. The virus itself causes mild symptoms like fever and/or rash and isn’t necessarily a health risk. The virus is extremely dangerous to pregnant women because it can cause brain deformities in the unborn baby.
“Never before in history has there been a situation where a bite from a mosquito can result in a devastating malformation” – Dr. Frieden, CDC adapted from the book Zika: the emerging epidemic
How is it transmitted? The virus is transmitted by a mosquito bite and then a pregnant woman can pass Zika to her fetus during pregnancy. The latest research also indicates that the virus can be sexually transmitted from a man to his sexual partners. Zika can spread when the man has symptoms, before symptoms start and after symptoms resolve. The CDC also reports that the virus can survive longer in semen than in blood.
What is the risk? The greatest risk is to women who are pregnant or who are trying to become pregnant because the virus causes severe birth defects. Specifically the virus is linked to microcephaly- which is a condition where the baby’s head size is significantly smaller due to an underdeveloped brain. Another risk is Guillain-Barre syndrome where the body’s auto-immune response attacks healthy nerve cells and causes temporary paralysis. The greatest risk is to women in countries where the Zika virus is actively spreading like Puerto Rico, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico- (you can find the complete list here) especially in dense urban areas, usually poor neighborhoods where standing water is common and screens in homes are sparse. As with many other public health issues, this virus is impacting poor women disproportionately than their wealthier counterparts. Birth control and/or delaying pregnancy isn’t always an easy choice or accessible option for these women due to cultural, political and environmental factors. Aside from the financial burden of raising a baby with microcephaly the emotional drain it has on the mother, partner and family are exhausting.
What does Zika do to unborn babies? The Zika virus attacks brain cells and disrupts normal development- CT scans of babies with Zika show devastating outcomes like calcification or hardening of tissue, large blank areas in the space where brain tissue should be growing and smooth brains instead of the deep grooves necessary for normal growth and development. It can cause other serious birth defects- according to research compiled for his book, Donald McNeil writes “some babies suffer fatal seizures. Some have spastic or frozen arms or legs. Some cry constantly in a high pitch. Some have difficulty feeding or swallowing. Without intensive care these babies dies in the first few weeks.” Early published studies suggest the chances of brain damage to be between 1 and 29% and a CDC study reported the risk of microcephaley to be as high as 13%.
What can I do to protect myself from Zika? Currently the CDC recommends that pregnant women avoid travel to countries with an active outbreak of Zika. If you are travelling to a country where mosquitoes are transmitting, then avoid mosquito bites 24 hrs a day. If a women is infected with Zika, she should wait at least 8 weeks before trying to conceive. If her male sexual partner has been exposed, she should not have unprotected sex for up to 6 months. If a woman is pregnant and her male sexual partner is exposed she should avoid unprotected sex for the remainder of her pregnancy. If a woman who is pregnant is exposed to Zika she should be tested right away and consult with her doctor.
“This is something that is solvable. It is not something that we have to panic about, but it is something we have to take seriously… So we’ve got to get moving,” – President Obama exerted from the Washington post
Now what? Should you worry about Zika on your honeymoon? Well the short answer is No girl, don’t worry! Not all women who are exposed to Zika during pregnancy will have a microcephaelic baby, but there is still a chance. From my own research I would encourage any women who is pregnant or trying to become pregnant to avoid areas where mosquitos are actively transmitting Zika. President Obama and public health officials are working towards securing funding to develop a vaccine which most likely won’t be available until 2018. Fortunately for women in the US we have preventative measures to keep mosquitoes out …like doors, roofs, screens and bug spray with Deet… but for all my home-girls who are making honeymoon travel plans (and want to get preggers soon) I would stay away from areas with active Zika transmitions…. or take a “honeymoon” from baby-making until there is no danger of infection. Or just honeymoon in Alaska or Canada… hey, it could be fun!