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My son is one of those people mosquitos love. One walk outside in the summer and he is covered in mosquito bites. We tease him that he must taste delicious, but those little bugs do cause him a fair bit of discomfort.
I’ve been thinking a lot about mosquito bites as the weather warms up on the East Coast and as news of the first death linked to the Zika virus was announced on US soil. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed recently that the decedent, a man in his 70s, died in Puerto Rico from complications of Zika.
As the Zika virus is transmitted to humans primarily through infected mosquitoes (the Aedes aegypti mosquito specifically), I’ve been concerned about people like my son who are magnets for mosquitoes. How will they fare if Zika spreads further into the US? What about those who have compromised immune systems, like babies and the elderly? What about pregnant women? Now that Zika is in the US, how worried should they – and I – be?
Thankfully, Megan L. Evans, MD, MPH, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Tufts Medical Center and an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, prepared a fact sheet about Zika in an effort to head off the misinformation and worry.
From Dr. Evans, I learned that the incubation period for the virus is three to fourteen days, with symptoms including rash, fevers, joint and body aches, and conjunctivitis. One of the challenges of Zika, however, is that not every infected person exhibits this combination of symptoms, and indeed, it is possible to have no symptoms at all, making the virus difficult to diagnose.
In addition to being infected via mosquitoes, Zika can be transmitted sexually from an infected male to his sexual partner. This poses special concerns for women who are pregnant or looking to become pregnant, as the virus can be dangerous to their unborn children. “Although there is still a lot that is unknown about the Zika virus and its effect on a pregnancy and a developing fetus, there is increasing evidence between the Zika virus and adverse pregnancy outcomes,” explains Dr. Evans. “These outcomes may include pregnancy loss, brain and eye abnormalities, and microcephaly, which is a smaller than normal head.”
Dr. Evans continues: “If you have traveled to a country or state where the Zika virus is spreading and had symptoms consistent with Zika virus exposure, your doctor can do a blood test that may determine if you have been infected. If it is positive, is it recommended women diagnosed wait eight weeks to attempt pregnancy. If the male partner has been diagnosed, it is recommended that the couple wait six months prior to attempting pregnancy.”
Since the impact on an unborn child can be life threatening, caution is urged for women who are pregnant or seeking to become pregnant and who may have been exposed to Zika. Dr. Evans explains, “Pregnant women who have traveled to or reside in Zika infected areas should notify their obstetrician within two weeks of potential exposure. Additionally, women who have symptoms consistent with a Zika virus infection after travel to Zika infected areas should also notify their obstetrician,”
Dr. Evans adds, “Your doctor will then do a lab test to assess for Zika virus exposure. Pregnant women who have traveled to or reside in Zika infected areas should also have an ultrasound within three to four weeks of symptoms or potential exposure.” Additional ultrasounds may be needed to monitor the baby’s growth should tests come back positive for the virus. Those looking for prenatal care from providers who are up-to-date on the latest developments with the Zika virus can consult Dr. Evans and her colleagues at Tufts Medical Center.
Regardless of your age, gender, or pregnancy status, Dr. Evans urges prevention from Zika. One strategy is to avoid traveling to countries with reported Zika infections. The CDC website manages a list of these countries, and can be consulted for general travel guidance. If travel to these areas cannot be avoided, Dr. Evans recommends staying in areas away from mosquitos, as well as using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves and pants, and sleeping under mosquito netting.
It is important to note that there is still much to be learned about the Zika virus and resultant infections. Recommendations are changing frequently as more information becomes available. To stay abreast of developments, consult the CDC, World Health Organization, or Pan American Health Organization.
The best advice I’ve heard is not to panic. While Zika can put families at risk, implementing good prevention strategies and seeking medical expertise are key tools to keeping your family as safe and as well cared for as possible.