7 Things Pregnant Women Need to Know About Zika Virus


Lorna Collier

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The Zika virus has been in the news lately because of the threat it may pose to unborn babies following alarming reports of more than 3,800 babies born with birth defects in Brazil. Zika has been spreading in South and Central America and the Caribbean, and it’s been identified in some people in the United States who caught it while traveling in those regions.

How concerned should you be about the Zika virus, especially if you are pregnant? Here’s what you need to know.

1.  The virus is transmitted primarily by mosquitoes.

The virus is almost always spread by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which is found most frequently in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. (The Aedes mosquito also spreads dengue fever, yellow fever and the chikungunya virus.) In September 2016, officials in Miami Beach, Fla., detected Zika in trapped mosquitoes, confirming the virus was being spread locally via the insects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was advising pregnant women to avoid travel to two areas of Miami with Zika outbreaks, and recommended that any pregnant women living in those areas should limit their time outdoors and, when they are outside, take measures to protect against mosquito bites.

2. The virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact.

In early February 2016, the CDC confirmed the first sexually transmitted case of Zika in the U.S., in which a person in Texas was infected by an ill sexual partner who had recently returned from a country where Zika was present. As a result, the CDC updated its guidelines [CM1] for pregnant women to abstain from sex or use condoms for the duration of the pregnancy if their male partner has recently traveled to a Zika-affected area..

3. The virus can be passed from a mother to her unborn child—but it’s rare.

Much of the concern about Zika virus focuses on how the virus can pass from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy, especially near the time of delivery. However, this type of case is rare, and scientists are still investigating this method of transmission. There are no reports of the virus spreading through breastfeeding.

The virus also cannot be spread through the air (for example, by coughing or sneezing).

4. Zika is linked to microcephaly, but not proven as the cause.

Scientists are studying whether Zika causes microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with smaller than normal heads. Babies with microcephaly can have developmental problems ranging from mild to fatal.

From October 2015 through January 2016, there were more than 3,800 cases of microcephaly in Brazil, compared with 147 in all of 2014. The U.S. also saw its first case in January 2016, when a Zika-infected baby with microcephaly was born in Hawaii. The baby’s mother is believed to have been infected while living abroad.

The CDC advises pregnant women and women of child-bearing age to avoid travel to Brazil and 13 other countries and territories where Zika virus is prevalent, including Mexico and Puerto Rico. (You can check the CDC website for current travel alerts[CM2] .)

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 1, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Zika Virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  http://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html
  2. Zika Virus. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/en/
  3. Interim Guidelines for Pregnant Women During a Zika Virus Outbreak — United States, 2016. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.