What is the Zika virus? Can I get it?

The Zika virus is carried and spread by Aedes mosquitoes. The most common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, or red eyes. Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. As many as 4 out of 5 people who contract Zika have no symptoms at all. The cause for concern is that the Zika infection in pregnant women has been linked to a increased rates of microcephaly, a condition in which a baby is born with a smaller than normal head. While it is not proven that Zika has caused this condition, the link is strong enough for health experts to warn pregnant women to avoid travel to areas where Zika is being transmitted.

The first cases were reported in the Caribbean and Central and South Americas, but have now appeared in the United States in several women who have traveled to regions where the virus has spread or who have had sexual relations with someone who was infected. The virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, but can also be transmitted through blood or sexual contact.

Can it be prevented?

There is no vaccine to prevent it, so the best prevention, for women who are pregnant or women who are planning to become pregnant, is to avoid travel to Zika epidemic areas unless you absolutely must visit them. Before you travel outside the country, it is important to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website for updates on areas where the Zika virus is being transmitted. At the moment, this includes countries such as Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico – US territory, Costa Rica, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Martin, Suriname, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Venezuela, American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga and Cape Verde.

I am pregnant and I have to travel. What should I do?

If travel is absolutely necessary, talk with your physician first and follow steps to avoid mosquito bites. Use mosquito netting, insect repellant, wear long pants, long sleeve shirts, and hats, and stay indoors in well air conditioned areas.

If I’m not pregnant, but contract the Zika virus, do I need to worry about my future pregnancies?

After infection, the virus remains in the blood for 1-2 weeks. According to the CDC, the virus will not cause any issues to a baby that is conceived after the virus has cleared from the body. To date, there is no evidence that a previous infection poses a risk of birth defects in future pregnancies.  Consult with your doctor first, though, if you have been infected with the virus and are considering pregnancy.

Where can I get more information?

It is important to stay informed as more information becomes available. For the latest updates and for more details on the Zika virus, visit the CDC’s website.

Paul Sax, MD, is the Clinical Director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Sax also directs the BWH HIV program, and is an internationally recognized expert in HIV clinical care.

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