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Pregnancy and Zika Virus: What you need to know and What to do if you suspect a Zika Infection

One of the worrying diseases right now is a Zika infection. This is especially worrisome to women who are pregnant or who suspect they are pregnant because the virus causes devastating birth defects to the fetus. The virus is spread through a mosquito bite, specifically a bite from the Aedes aegypti and Albopictus species, a daytime biter. These mosquitoes are also the same type that spread dengue as well as chikungunya viruses.

Zika Mosquito

Right now, there are reported 15 cases of Zika infection in South Florida. Because of the increasing number of cases, CDC has issued a warning for pregnant women to avoid visiting or traveling to the most affected areas of Miami. The CDC also encourages pregnant women who frequently visit or live in the affected areas to get tested for Zika virus during their prenatal care physician visits.

What are the signs and symptoms of Zika?

The scary thing about Zika is that most people with the infection do not exhibit overt symptoms; and if they do, the symptoms are mild. If you are pregnant and are having these symptoms, then you should visit your physician immediately:

  • Fever with joint and muscle pain.
  • Development of an itchy skin rash that is red, raised, and spread all over the body. The skin rash typically starts on the face then spreads toward the rest of the body.
  • Headache.
  • Fatigue.
  • Conjunctivitis or red eye that is nonpurulent. It is also sometimes accompanied by pain behind the orbit of the eye.

These symptoms usually manifest in a couple of weeks after the initial infection and could last anywhere from several days to a few weeks.

How is it spread?

The primary mode of Zika infection transmission is through a mosquito bite. Other modes of transmission include:

  • Mother to fetus. The virus can be passed on to the fetus during pregnancy or during delivery of the baby.
  • Sex. The infected person can pass the virus on to their partner during sex.
  • Blood transfusion. Reports have been made that the infection can also be passed through blood transfusion.

What are the effects of Zika infection?

Other than the symptoms of Zika infection mentioned above, the infected person is expected to make a full recovery once the virus has run its course. However, in some rare cases, death can occur in immunocompromised people.

Zika infection is also said to cause Guillain-Barre Syndrome or GBS. Studies and research are now being done on this since there seemed to be an increased number of GBS cases reported in areas most affected by Zika virus. In a nutshell, GBS affects the nervous system, causing weakness of the upper and lower extremities. Severe cases of GBS can affect the muscles for breathing, causing the need for respiratory assistance. The symptoms of GBS usually linger for several months, but most patients completely recover from the disease.

The most devastating effect though of Zika infection is microcephaly. This is a birth defect wherein the baby’s head is much smaller in size compared to a normal baby’s. Microcephaly is catastrophic because it causes severe brain damage.

The brain of the fetus grows as the baby’s head increases in size, but with microcephaly, the brain’s growth is impeded by the small size of the skull. Brain development is affected, causing problems such as seizures, vision and hearing problems, speech difficulties, and fine and motor movement problems. Microcephaly can also cause balance problems as well as intellectual disability. There may also be feeding problems, with the child having difficulty in eating and swallowing. The effects of microcephaly are lifelong and can also be life-threatening.

What do you do if you suspect you have Zika virus?

If you are pregnant and traveled to or live in a Zika-infected area, it is advisable that you visit your physician as soon as possible and get tested for Zika infection. Urine and saliva samples are taken for reverse transcriptase PCR (RT-PCR) testing. This detects the presence of Zika virus RNA.

If your partner traveled to a Zika-infected area and you had sex with him and suspect that you might be pregnant, then you need to get a pregnancy test. Pregnancy tests will detect the presence of hCG in the urine. This is a hormone that the placenta produces when the woman is pregnant. Of note, while home testing is okay to do, lab testing is much more preferable because it is sensitive and produces a more accurate result.

Other tests include complete blood count, IgM and IgG antibodies, as well as routine chemistry panel. Tests are also done to rule out dengue and chikungunya viruses. 

What is the treatment for Zika infection?

There is no vaccine against Zika virus nor is there any specific medicine that can kill the virus and treat the disease. The best way to fight Zika infection is to treat the symptoms.

  • Plenty of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.
  • Take medicines to treat the symptoms of Zika infection (fever, headache, joint and muscle pain, etc.)
  • Avoid NSAIDS to lower the risk of bleeding, unless dengue is ruled out.

How can Zika infection be prevented?

The best way to prevent Zika infection is to:

  • Avoid mosquito bites by using insect repellents. You can also cover up your body with long-sleeved shirts and long pants to avoid getting bitten.
  • Install window as well as door screens to stop mosquitoes from entering your home, and make sure there are no stagnant water around your property. Stagnant water can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
  • Avoid traveling to Zika-infected areas.
  • Use condoms to prevent transmission of the virus.

Zika infection is a serious disease and has fatal consequences to the fetus, so it is important that you get tested for the virus immediately and have proper and regular prenatal care. These tests may be costly, but there are low cost blood tests available for you to order online and you can even check the average cost of blood work without insurance if your insurance company won’t cover the costs of these tests.