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Zika virus and birth defects: What you need to know

Posted on Feb. 25, 2016 ( comments)
Mosquito on skin

Health officials worldwide are encouraging pregnant women and women who want to become pregnant to avoid travel to countries where the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness linked to birth defects, is spreading — primarily in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

Occurrence of the virus, and the birth defect microcephaly, has been increasing since last May. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency earlier this month and is now developing a coordinated international response.

One case of Zika virus has been confirmed in Washington state by the Department of Health. A Mason County man in his 20s tested positive for the virus. He recently traveled to the South Pacific.

Here’s what you need to know about Zika virus.

What is Zika virus disease?

Zika is a disease caused by Zika virus that is spread by mosquitoes found in tropical and subtropical climates. It usually causes mild symptoms that clear up within a week. Some people can be infected and have no symptoms at all. In pregnant women, it has been linked to birth defects, though not conclusively.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of Zika disease are generally mild and go away on their own within several days to a week: rash, fever, joint pain and conjunctivitis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about one in five people infected with Zika will become sick, so it’s possible to have Zika virus and not feel ill.

How does Zika virus spread?

Zika virus is spread by two species of mosquitoes common in tropical and subtropical areas in Africa and the Americas, but is not common in the United States except parts of the far south and Hawaii. The same mosquito can carry dengue and chikungunya viruses.

The Zika virus may also be transmitted sexually from an infected man to his sex partners. For pregnant women with sex partners who recently visited the affected countries, the CDC recommends abstaining from sex or using condoms.

Where is Zika virus found?

Zika virus has been found in almost three dozen countries, most in Latin America.

The CDC has warned pregnant women and women who want to become pregnant to avoid travel to these countries and territories.

Some Zika infections have been reported in the United States, but involved individuals who had traveled to countries where the virus is widespread, including the recent case in Washington state.

The number of Zika virus cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase because of the recent outbreaks in the Americas, says the CDC.

When did it start spreading?

Zika virus was originally discovered in the 1940s, but only became widespread last May, when the World Health Organization reported the first local transmission of Zika in Brazil.

What is the birth defect that Zika virus has been linked to?

Zika virus has been connected to the birth defect microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head is abnormally small. These babies often have smaller brains that may not have developed properly in the womb.

There has been a large increase in babies born with microcephaly in Brazil, but it is not known yet how many of these cases are associated with Zika virus.

Is there a treatment or vaccine for Zika virus?

No specific treatment of Zika disease or vaccine for Zika virus exists, but you can treat the symptoms by getting rest, drinking fluids and taking acetaminophen to reduce fever and pain.

How can I protect myself and my family from Zika virus?

If you are pregnant or wish to become pregnant, avoid travel to countries where the virus has been spreading. If you are pregnant and your sex partner has traveled to any of these countries, abstain from sex or use a condom every time.

If you are pregnant and decide to travel to the affected areas, talk to your doctor or health care provider first and carefully follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.

Here are steps you can take to avoid exposure to mosquitoes in general:

  • Wear long sleeve shirts and pants whenever possible
  • Apply generous amounts of EPA-registered insect repellent when outdoors
  • Remove standing water from containers where mosquitoes could breed
  • Avoid being outdoors, especially at dusk and dawn, as much as possible
  • Use air conditioning or window/door screens when indoors
  • When traveling, sleep under a mosquito bed net if you’re outside or in a room not well-screened
  • Treat clothing and gear with permethrin for extra protection, or purchase permethrin-treated clothing

If I’m pregnant and have symptoms of Zika virus disease, or I’ve traveled to one of the affected countries recently, what should I do?

Talk to your doctor about getting tested for Zika virus infection. Those who should be tested include:

  • Pregnant women with symptoms of Zika virus disease and/or recent travel to an affected country
  • Pregnant women who have ultrasound findings of microcephaly or intracranial calcification
  • Women who have experienced infant loss and either had symptoms of Zika virus infection or recent travel to an affected country
  • Newborns of mothers who visited or lived in an affected country while pregnant

Should I stop breastfeeding if I live or travel in an affected area?

The CDC still encourages breastfeeding even in areas where Zika virus is found, as no link between breast milk and Zika virus infection has been documented. The benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential risks associated with transmission of Zika virus through breastmilk. 

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