The images associated with Zika in the media are alarming: they depict babies with abnormally small heads, sick mothers and display evidence of various other birth defects. While it is known that children born with the virus can experience physical and mental impairments for the rest of their lives, questions remain. How common is Zika, and should mothers really worry about the disease?
Transmitted primarily through infected mosquitoes or unprotected sex with a partner who’s infected, the Zika virus has been diagnosed in roughly 5,300 cases in the United States this year. Of those cases, 29 instances occurred when a mother passed the virus on to her fetus.
"Many of those infected with Zika never suffer any symptoms," said Dr. David Berck, director of Perinatology at CareMount Medical. "In those who do, effects are usually mild and resolve completely." However, Zika in newborns can cause serious growth defects, so it's important for parents-to-be to educate themselves on the virus.
One thing that's important to know is that very few Zika infections in the United States are the result of a domestic mosquito bite. In the vast majority of cases, Americans have picked up the virus during international travel. Higher risk locations often include warm climate locales such as Mexico, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, the Pacific Islands and South America. To minimize the risk of virus contraction, the CDC recommends pregnant women avoid traveling to areas with Zika. "If you’re thinking of becoming pregnant, wait to do so if you’re anticipating traveling to any Zika-infected areas," said Berck.
Regardless of travel, many doctors agree that all pregnant women in the U.S. and its territories should be assessed for possible Zika exposure. Additionally, "pregnant women who have lived in or traveled to a Zika travel notice area should be tested, regardless of symptom status," said Berck. "Pregnant women whose sexual partner has lived in or traveled to a Zika travel notice area should be tested."
While there’s currently no vaccine to prevent Zika or treatment once it occurs, taking the proper steps to prevent contraction is an effective first step. "The odds of getting Zika while pregnant in the United States are exceedingly low," he said. "Mothers-to-be should follow the guidelines, be vigilant and not panic," said Berck.
For more information on how to avoid Zika contraction, click here.