When Julie, recently pregnant, heard about the Zika virus, her initial reaction was one of fear. The virus has been in recent headlines, especially with the World Health Organisation declaring it a public health emergency.
We understand that expectant parents and people trying to conceive may be anxious about the implications of the virus on their pregnancy and on the health of their unborn child. So we have requested Dr. Ben Smith, an experienced WellVine GP, to answer your common questions related to pregnancy and the Zika virus.
You are welcome to also book a consultation with WellVine GPs if you have any further questions related to the Zika virus, or indeed any other matter concerning your pregnancy or your children’s health.
What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is an infection, carried by Aedes mosquitos. It was first discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in the 1940s. It is harmless in most cases in humans but there are concerns about risks of infection in pregnant women, and the impact on their developing babies. The virus has been around for many years, but recently there has been an increase in cases. There is currently significant uncertainty around the level of risk in pregnant women, and the global health community is working towards developing a better understanding of the risks.
How is it transmitted, and what are the symptoms?
Being bitten by an infected Aedes mosquito transmits the Zika virus. There has been a small number of reported cases passed on by sexual contact. There are a few cases of pregnant women passing it on to their unborn child.
Symptoms are usually mild and typically last for two to seven days. They include a low-grade fever, conjunctivitis (red eyes), headache, rash (which can be itchy), and joint pain.
Which countries are affected by the virus?
The information about this is constantly changing, but predominantly it is countries in South and Central America. You can find up-to-date information from Public Health England here, and from the World Health Organisation here.
What are the risks of the Zika virus during pregnancy?
Women that contract Zika virus (at any stage in pregnancy) may be at risk of giving birth to a baby with a condition called microcephaly, which means a small head associated with abnormal brain development. You can read more about microcephaly here.
I am pregnant and recently visited a country affected by the Zika virus. What should be my next steps?
You should contact your GP or midwife to see what the local procedures are where you live.
If you have no symptoms, it may be advisable to have extra scans in your pregnancy to check the growth and brain development of your baby. If you have symptoms, you will be offered a blood test to check for infection.
Medical knowledge about this problem is changing on an almost daily basis at the moment. It may be that women without symptoms have a blood test taken for storage, in case advice changes in the near future.
If a non-pregnant woman contracts the Zika virus, could her future pregnancies be impacted?
If you have confirmed Zika virus infection, it is recommended to wait six months before trying to conceive. After that there is currently no concern that future pregnancies would be affected.
Is it safe to get pregnant after traveling to a country with Zika virus?
If you have travelled to a country with the Zika virus outbreak, even if you have not been unwell, it is advisable to wait 28 days after returning home before trying to conceive.
If you have symptoms during your trip, or within 8 weeks of returning, you should avoid conceiving for 6 months after recovery, unless Zika virus infection has ben ruled out by a blood test.
Should pregnant women in the UK be worried about the virus?
It is understandable to be worried, but there is currently no evidence of transmission outside of the affected countries. There is a suggestion that the virus can be passed on by sexual contact but this is yet to be confirmed.
If your partner has travelled to an infected country, NHS guidelines recommend avoiding unprotected sex for 28 days after your partner’s return, or 6 months following recovery if he has had Zika infection, or symptoms suggestive of it (i.e. use a condom to be safe for that duration).
Is there a vaccine for the Zika virus?
A vaccine is currently not available. Work is ongoing to develop one but this may take some time.
What precautions should pregnant women take?
At present, the main advice is to avoid travel to any of the affected countries if you are pregnant, or trying to conceive.
If travel is absolutely unavoidable then take sensible steps to avoid the risk of being bitten by mosquitos, including using good quality repellant (DEET is safe in pregnancy), wearing loose fitting clothing that covers all of your body, and sleeping under a mosquito net.
See above for advice if your partner travels to any affected areas.
What has been the response from international health organisations?
There is a huge international response ongoing, coordinated by the World Health Organisation, including prioritising research into the Zika virus disease and its link to serious birth defects. Advice may be updated over coming weeks and months.
We hope this is helpful and we wish you a happy and safe pregnancy. Please feel free to book an appointment with a WellVine GP for any further queries.