Stories about a mosquito borne disease called Zika virus have dominated headlines in recent weeks as its presence has traveled to areas of Central America, South America and the Caribbean from Africa. Read the very latest from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the virus and the travel alert it has issued. While there is no concrete evidence linking the virus to serious acute illness, women who have been pregnant while contracting the virus have given birth to babies with microcephaly – a condition associated with an abnormally small head, and more specifically, a small brain.
The medical needs of children with microcephaly can be high. Children with the condition are at a greater risk of cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and seizures. Unfortunately, there is no treatment to reverse microcephaly after it has occurred. That makes prevention of the infection during pregnancy critical, says Amanda Moen, M.D., a Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare pediatric neurologist.
“We do not yet know how severe these conditions will be in children born with microcephaly, presumably due to infection of their mothers with the Zika virus during pregnancy,” Moen says. “At minimum, these children should be followed by a child neurologist for monitoring of development, and other symptoms that require intervention. “
Those who contract the virus will typically experience mild symptoms including fever, rash and joint pain. While it’s not necessarily time to cancel travel plans, there are some reasonable precautions women can take to avoid the Zika virus and potentially putting their children at risk, Moen says.
“Mosquitos are notorious for transmitting potentially life-threatening diseases such as malaria, and West Nile virus, so it’s always smart to take precautions when you’re in an area with concentrated populations of mosquitos,” Moen says. “The Zika virus is no different. You should be aware when you’re around the disease and protect yourself.”
Moen recommends the following precautions to travelers regarding the Zika virus:
- Women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant should think about choosing travel destinations to areas of the world where mosquitos aren’t transmitting the virus.
- If a woman travels to an area where Zika is being transmitted, she should use precautions to protect herself such as staying indoors, and inside screened areas.
- If women go outdoors in areas with mosquitos and the virus, they should wear long pants and long sleeves, use bed nets when applicable and apply bug spray to prevent bites.
- While there are no known health risks to men from the virus, it is recommended they follow the same precautions.
Our understanding of the Zika virus continues to grow, Moen says. There is emerging evidence that the virus may cause another rare neurologic disorder, Guillain Barre Syndrome, in a small percentage of individuals infected with it. Guillain Barre syndrome is a condition where over activity of the immune system results in injury to peripheral nerves, resulting in weakness, and in severe cases, even complete paralysis. This new information further supports the need for all individuals, not just women, to practice precautions around mosquitos in areas where the virus is being transmitted, she says.