The ZIKA virus has emerged as a public health hazard in several countries around the world.
While many have heard of the ZIKA virus, many remain unclear as to what, exactly, the ZIKA virus is, how the infection is spread, or which members of the population are considered to be at higher risk of contracting the infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, the ZIKA virus is a viral infection spread by the Aedes mosquito; the same species of mosquitoes that carry Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, and the Chikungunya Virus. The virus was named for the region of Uganda, where it was first discovered in 1947.
What are the Symptoms of a ZIKA Infection?
Symptoms of a ZIKA virus infection can be non-existent. If a person does experience symptoms, they are usually mild to moderate and short-lived. The most common symptoms include:
- Pain in the back of the eye socket
- Fatigue or Lethargy
- Muscle and/or Joint pain and discomfort
- Lack of appetite
- Eye irritation or redness
Why are Pregnant Women Considered to be at Higher Risk?
While anyone that has been bitten by a mosquito that carries the ZIKA virus can become infected, pregnant women appear to be at higher risk.
During pregnancy, the mother and her unborn child share a blood supply via the umbilical cord. When a pregnant woman becomes infected with the ZIKA virus, the virus is spread to her unborn child through this shared blood. The ZIKA virus can cause severe birth defects in unborn children. The threat of fetal defect or complications appears to be the highest during the first trimester of a woman's pregnancy.
It must be noted that while there is currently no concrete proof that the ZIKA virus is responsible for the rise in certain birth defects, the current level of circumstantial evidence very strongly suggests, both to physicians and the medical research community at large, the ZIKA virus is responsible for the surge in certain developmental complications/defects in utero.
What Birth Defects are Thought to be Associated with the ZIKA Virus and how the Ultrasound can help?
While most pregnant women (that are infected with the ZIKA virus during their pregnancy) will go on to deliver healthy babies, some pregnant women will have babies diagnosed with a series of birth defects or complications that are grouped under the heading of "Congenital ZIKA Syndrome".
Congenital ZIKA Syndrome is a collective diagnosis given for various birth defects and complications incurred as a result of a ZIKA-infected pregnancy. Doctors and scientists do not currently understand why Congenial ZIKA Syndrome only affects some pregnancies and not others. Babies diagnosed with this syndrome can have birth defects or complications that include:
1. Microcephaly (the main birth defect attributed to a ZIKA-infected pregnancy) - an abnormally small skull structure that interferes with normal brain development.
2. Cognitive Brain Defects or Delays - The ZIKA virus can cause severe intellectual developmental delays or disruptions in babies exposed to the ZIKA virus in the womb.
3. Vision Difficulties and/or Blindness - The ZIKA virus can cause severe vision problems in unborn babies. Problems ranging from difficulty with distance-related vision issues to complete blindness have been associated with prenatal ZIKA virus exposure.
4. Arthrogryposis - a severely disabling joint condition.
5. Problems with Hearing Development and Deafness
In case of a positive Zika test your doctor or other healthcare provider could do more ultrasounds and other tests to get more information about the fetus. Again it is important to note that sometimes ultrasounds will not be able to show if there are any visible signs of Microcephaly or any other birth defects (microcephaly can sometimes be seen on the 18-20 week ultrasound although it is usually detected later in the second trimester).
Medical researchers strongly suspect that there is a link between prenatal ZIKA virus infections and the rising number of cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, but more scientific research is needed to confirm the link. Guillain-Barre Syndrome is an illness in which a person's immune system attacks the body's nervous system. This can result in a variety of debilitating symptoms, ranging from mild muscle weakness to more severe paralysis.
The Best Way Pregnant Women Can Help Reduce Exposure Risks to the ZIKA Virus
Currently, there is no vaccine available to combat the ZIKA virus. Taking preventative measures is the single most effective method for reducing individual exposure risks. We live in an age that makes worldwide travel popular and convenient. Unfortunately, this also means that today, it is much easier for diseases and infections to spread across the globe as well.
Medical researchers have identified the Aedes species of mosquitoes as the vector responsible for the spread of the ZIKA virus. Pregnant women are strongly advised to avoid traveling to areas of the world where there is a known or suspected ZIKA virus outbreak. If a woman is currently pregnant, suspects she may be pregnant or is actively trying to conceive, avoiding areas where ZIKA is present is critical to protecting her unborn child.
Additional Preventative Measures That Help Reduce ZIKA Virus Exposure Risks:
1. Avoid mosquito bites. Limit the amount of time spent outdoors when mosquitoes are known to be active. Wear long-sleeved clothing and long pants while outdoors.
2. Use insect repellant to limit the risks associated with mosquito bites. Ask your physician to recommend one that is safe to use during pregnancy.
3. Eliminate any areas of standing water around your property. Standing water serves as a fertile breeding ground for mosquito larva.
4. Avoid having unprotected sex with someone thought to be infected with the ZIKA virus. It is strongly suspected that ZIKA can be sexually transmitted.
5. Install screens on windows to help keep mosquitoes out of the home.
Taking precautionary steps to reduce the risk of ZIKA virus exposure will go a long way towards ensuring a healthy pregnancy for both mother and child.