What Women Need to Know About Zika Prior to Pregnancy

Women considering pregnancy, either for themselves or as surrogates, have a new threat to face. The Zika virus has been in the headlines recently and it’s a scary time for pregnant women, and also for those wanting to conceive. Here is what you need to know.

What is Zika?

The Zika virus is not a new disease, but it’s bringing new problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus was first isolated in 1947 from a rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda. Since that time, there have been several outbreaks in African and Asian countries, French Polynesia and most recently, Brazil. Some people who contract the virus display no symptoms. Others experience mild symptoms, such as low grade fevers, headache, muscle aches, red eyes and rash.

What is Zika’s Potential Impact?

Most importantly for our patient population, is the strong association between contraction of the Zika virus in women and microcephaly in their infants. Microcephaly is a birth defect which causes babies to be born with unusually small heads and underdeveloped brains. Microcephaly’s impact on its victims is life long, and can cause developmental delays ranging from mild to severe. While the link between Zika and microcephaly has yet to be definitively proven, scientists and world health leaders agree that the link is indisputable.

The Zika virus is also linked to Guillain-Barre’ syndrome (GBS), a neurological disorder which causes the immune system to attack parts of the nervous system. GBS can affect any individual, male or female, at any age.

How is Zika Transmitted?

The Zika Virus appears to be transmitted primarily through bites from infected mosquitos. Not every mosquito carries the Zika virus. Prevention against mosquito bites is imperative across all geographic locations, particularly during warm and hot weather months. WHO’s guidelines on mosquito bite protection can be found here. It is important to discuss mosquito repellant use with your physician. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of bug repellents, including DEET, and their toxicity levels can be found here.

Recently, there have also been reports of the virus being transmitted sexually. The CDC’s guidelines on avoiding sexual transmission of Zika can be found here.

Zika Virus Detection

In individuals who are symptomatic, the virus can be detected 10 days after the onset of symptoms and has been detected in urine, saliva and breast milk, even after infection has resolved.

Action Steps

Given this new information, and the suspected relationship between microcephaly in infants, we have changed the way we counsel our patients who are trying to become pregnant. We are strongly advising against travel to countries with active Zika for both patients and their partners. For partners who have travelled to affected countries, we are recommending the use of condoms throughout the pregnancy. If travel is unavoidable, we strongly urge the liberal use of mosquito precautions.

Please contact your physician if you have more questions about the Zika virus and visit the CDC website which is continually updating their list of affected countries.

Read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidelines for Pregnant Women here.

Suzanne Yahiro-Leibowitz has worked in the field of infertility for over 10 years. She is currently a physician assistant and IVF case manager for Reproductive Science Center of the Bay Area. Yahiro-Leibowitz is married and the mother of three children.

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