During prenatal visits, my patients often ask me about their risk of contracting the Zika virus. Luckily for us in Wisconsin, the only place in the United States that has Zika cases is far away in Florida. However, many women may travel to Zika areas during pregnancy. Over the coming months, the virus also is expected to spread to other states. If you are planning to travel during your pregnancy, there are ways to keep you and your baby healthy.
The facts about the Zika virus
Health professionals have determined the Zika virus is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. It can be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby and from an infected person to his or her sex partners.
Most people infected with the Zika virus won’t have symptoms or will only have mild ones, such as fever, rash, joint pain or red eyes. Even pregnant women may not have symptoms at all.
However, a Zika infection is especially risky during pregnancy because it can cause severe birth defects, including microcephaly, a condition in which a baby is born with a much smaller head than normal, usually due to a smaller brain.
Although there is no vaccine to prevent a Zika infection, you can take measures to protect yourself while traveling. First, check Zika travel notices for the most current information about areas with Zika outbreaks. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highly recommends staying away from any country in which the Zika virus is circulating. No matter where you are going, it is always a good idea to consult with your health care provider before traveling while pregnant.
However, if you must travel to an infected area, such as Latin America or the Caribbean, cover exposed skin and use a lot of insect repellent. Be sure to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect your skin from mosquito bites. You also can treat your clothing with Permethrin (an insect repellent) or buy pre-treated items to keep the mosquitoes away. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents are proven safe for pregnant women.
When making your travel arrangements, try to stay in places with air conditioning, and ask if they have window and door screens to keep the mosquitoes out. If screened rooms are not available, sleep under a mosquito net.
Zika also can be passed through sex from a person with Zika to his or her partners, even if the person doesn’t have symptoms at that time, so practice safe sex and use condoms before, during and after returning from travel.
DIY Zika prevention kit
Here are some items to have on hand when you travel to a Zika-infected area.
- Bed net – to keep mosquitoes out of your room, day and night
- Standing water treatment tabs – to kill larvae in standing water around your home
- EPA-registered insect repellent – to keep mosquitoes from biting you. Do not spray the repellent on the skin under your clothing, and if you are using suncreen, apply the sunscreen first and repellent second.
- Permethrin spray – to spray your clothing and possessions and keep mosquitoes away
- Condoms – to prevent exposure to Zika through sex
After traveling to an area with Zika, it is important to continue to prevent mosquito bites for at least three weeks, so Zika does not spread to mosquitoes that could spread the virus to other people.
If traveling is in your future, be sure to take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your baby.
For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website: cdc.gov/zika.
Rachel Eash-Scott, M.D. is a family physician at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers.