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How Does Zika Virus Affect An Unborn Baby?

How Does Zika Affect Unborn Babies?

If you are pregnant/trying to conceive, you should be extremely cautious of this mosquito-borne illness that can even threaten your unborn baby's health. Zika can cause microcephaly and other severe neurological defects among newborns including vision problems, impaired growth. The best approach is to prevent mosquito bites, avoid traveling to zika-prone areas.

That the tiny mosquito is a dangerous insect is no surprise. From dengue and malaria to chikungunya, debilitating illnesses can be caused by a single bite. Now we have an even more lethal virus – Zika, which can be passed on from a pregnant woman to her fetus! Here’s one pregnancy precaution you don’t want to miss out on.

Zika Causes Brain Defects And Physical Deformations In Newborns

Infants born to women with Zika virus may have microcephaly, a birth defect in which a baby’s head is smaller and brain is less developed than what’s expected at that particular age. In addition to this, the infant might suffer from congenital zika syndrome in which the infant might have

  • A partially collapsed skull
  • Decreased brain tissue with a specific pattern of brain damage
  • Scarring, pigment changes, or other damage to the back of the eye
  • Joints with limited range of motion, such as clubfoot
  • Too much muscle tone restricting body movement soon after birth

Besides this, babies, with or without microcephaly, infected with Zika before birth may have damage to their eyes and/or the part of their brain that is responsible for vision, leading to visual impairment. Recent studies have found that babies with Zika experienced difficulty sitting independently, feeding, and sleeping along with seizures, hearing, and vision problems.

However, not all infants born with either of these conditions will have all of these problems at birth. Some might develop them at a later stage. That said, it isn’t the norm that every pregnant woman with Zika will have a child with birth defects. It only means that having the virus increases the chances of these problems during childbirth.1

The Virus Spreads Via Infected Aedes Mosquitoes

Zika virus spreads through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito (Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus). The Culex species, better known as the common house mosquito, might be to blame as well. Transmission of the virus occurs through mosquito bites, via unprotected sex with a partner who has spent time in Zika-infected areas, and from pregnant women to their fetus’. Blood transfusions are likely to spread the virus as well but this hasn’t been determined via studies yet.2

Zika Has Affected Several Parts Of The World

The CDC (Center For Disease Control And Prevention) has sent out an advisory against traveling to (or taking important precautionary measure while traveling to) several regions in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific Islands. Specific regions that had the most severe outbreaks of the virus and are under the scanner are Yap, a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia including Easter Island and Brazil.3 4

Couples Looking To Conceive Should Consult A Doctor Before Traveling

The Zika virus infection in itself doesn’t cause a decrease in fertility. So women of reproductive age who’ve suffered the viral infection can continue to have a healthy reproductive life later. If you’ve had Zika at some point and want to plan a baby, meet a doctor and get tested to ensure that you are not still carrying the virus.[/ref]

While Zika during pregnancy is bad news, the advisory for women trying to get pregnant is to avoid contact with mosquitoes and having sex with men who have been in Zika-infected areas. Needless to say, men who plan on conceiving should also avoid traveling to these areas. Although most people with the virus don’t show any symptoms, some that you can watch out for are:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
  • Muscle pain

These symptoms last up to a week and this time period is the best to get tested for the virus, especially before planning a baby.5 In case you can’t avoid travel or if you live in a Zika-prone area, first get tested to ensure you haven’t already been infected. If yes, wait until the infection disappears from the body before planning a baby. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you’ll need to wait at least 8 weeks after exposure or after symptoms appear. More importantly, once you get pregnant, take all possible precautions to prevent contracting Zika.6

Infants Born To Mothers With Zika Must Be Tested For Symptoms

For pregnant women who have a Zika infection, post-delivery the newborn must be tested for Zika symptoms. Even if the child appears well, the CDC recommends that tissue samples be tested just to be sure.7 New mothers should continue to take precautions to avoid catching the virus through a mosquito bite or sexual transmission. While extremely rare so far, there have been cases of a healthy newborn being infected through breast milk, when the mother contracted the virus post-delivery.8

Prevention Is The Only Way To Beat Zika Virus

Several experts are committed to the cause of finding a vaccine for Zika. In fact, most recently scientists from Harvard and Arizona State University have developed a plant-based vaccine that might be effective at preventing the virus. But they all need further research before they’re government regulated and circulated.9

Besides this, there are no medicines to treat Zika either. And while the vaccines, specifically for pregnant women and those trying to get pregnant, are still being developed, the best way to ensure you don’t contract Zika is by not traveling to places that report infections. If travel is a compulsion, here’s how you can keep yourself safe:

  • Cover up fully and ensure mosquitoes don’t breed nearby.10
  • Ensure you stay in areas with screened-in windows and air conditioning
  • Consider using an insecticide-treated mosquito net while napping. Insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 are safe for pregnant women when used as directed.

References   [ + ]

1. Microcephaly & Other Birth Defects. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention.
2. Gatherer, Derek, and Alain Kohl. “Zika virus: a previously slow pandemic spreads rapidly through the Americas.” Journal of General Virology 97, no. 2 (2016): 269-273.
3. Guidance for Harvard affiliates traveling to Zika-affected regions. Harvard Global Support Services.
4. Mlakar, Jernej, Misa Korva, Nataša Tul, Mara Popović, Mateja Poljšak-Prijatelj, Jerica Mraz, Marko Kolenc et al. “Zika virus associated with microcephaly.” New England Journal of Medicine 374, no. 10 (2016): 951-958.
5. Symptoms. Center For Disease Control And Prevention.
6. Women Trying To Get Pregnant. CDC.
7. Zika Virus, CDC.
8. Dupont-Rouzeyrol, Myrielle, Antoine Biron, Olivia O’Connor, Emilie Huguon, and Elodie Descloux. “Infectious Zika viral particles in breastmilk.” The Lancet 387, no. 10023 (2016): 1051.
9. Yang, Ming, Huafang Lai, Haiyan Sun, and Qiang Chen. “Virus-like particles that display Zika virus envelope protein domain III induce potent neutralizing immune responses in mice.” Scientific reports 7, no. 1 (2017): 7679.
10. Amer, Abdelkrim, and Heinz Mehlhorn. “Repellency effect of forty-one essential oils against Aedes, Anopheles, and Culex mosquitoes.” Parasitology research 99, no. 4 (2006): 478-490.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.