Oak Hills Womens Center

Dr. Carolyn's Corner


A new public health threat, infection caused by the Zika virus, has recently begun to receive large amounts of attention in both the lay media and medical press. Many of us, physicians and patients alike, had not even heard of this virus before last year. Now with reports of birth defects associated with it, we should all become more aware of the problem and what we can do to prevent its spread.

The Zika virus was discovered in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda (Africa). It was not known to have spread to the Western Hemisphere until 2015, when an unusual number of cases of microcephaly in newborn infants were reported in Brazil. The virus is spread by the bite of a certain type of mosquito, which is commonly found in Latin America and the Caribbean. The same genus of mosquito has been identified in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, and in Hawaii.

Recent evidence shows that the virus has spread to the United States, with a small number of confirmed cases, mostly in people who have travelled to Central and/or South America. However, it was determined to be transmitted through sexual contact in at least one case in Texas. It is clear also that there can be transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy.

A large majority of people who contract this viral infection have either very mild symptoms or none at all. If present, symptoms include fever, rash, joint and muscle aches, and conjunctivitis, which usually last for less than one week. Since these symptoms are very typical of many other common viral infections, it can be difficult to diagnose quickly. Laboratory testing to identify the virus can only be done through the CDC and some state health departments.

The major concern with Zika virus infection is the number of reported cases of brain birth defects in infants born to women who were infected with the virus while pregnant. Cranial and cerebral malformations, especially microcephaly, or "unusually small brain" have been seen in over 4,000 babies in Brazil in the past year, a number much higher than normally seen. Investigations concerning the connection to the Zika virus are ongoing.

The CDC expects more cases of this infection to surface in the U.S. as travelers return or visit this year. Its guidelines concerning the Zika virus are complex and likely to be revised. With the Summer Olympics to be held in Brazil this year and busy international travel, it is especially important that the public follow the recommendations set forth to help prevent the spread of this virus.

We should all use common sense when it comes to prevention of the spread of the Zika virus. Pregnant women or those who plan to become pregnant in the near future should avoid travel to areas in Latin America and the Caribbean where the outbreak is known to be spreading. If travel to those areas is absolutely necessary during pregnancy, insect repellents can safely be used. Women who have traveled to these areas while pregnant should inform their doctors, even if they have not had symptoms, so appropriate steps can be taken to evaluate the development of their babies and manage the remainder of the pregnancy. All other women at risk for pregnancy should use strict birth control while traveling to these areas or if potentially exposed through sexual contact with someone who has recently traveled to these areas.

While this threat to our health is certainly not a cause for panic, it is one that deserves our attention. As it evolves, the newest information concerning the Zika virus may be found on the CDC website. ACOG (the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), working in consultation with the CDC, has also issued recommendations for management of the infection during pregnancy. Please address any personal concerns with your own physician.

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