Should You Still Be Concerned About Zika Virus?

September 18, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Julia Piwoz, M.D. contributes to topics such as Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

Lawrence B. Daniels, M.D. contributes to topics such as Neurology.

In 2016, it seemed like everyone was buzzing about the Zika virus. Pregnant women (and those thinking about becoming pregnant) were staying indoors for fear of being bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease, and families were canceling trips to places where the Zika virus was found.

Since then, things have been quiet on the Zika front. But, does that mean you don’t have to worry it anymore?

The risk of getting Zika in the U.S.

There have been no reports of someone getting Zika from a mosquito in the continental U.S. since 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no threat to pregnant women or those looking to become pregnant.

If your partner travels to a country that’s been affected, there’s a chance they can be bitten by an infected mosquito and transmit the virus through sex when they return home. Zika can stay in semen for up to seven months after infection (even without symptoms) and can be spread to partners during that time. Zika can also be transmitted if a mosquito bites an infected person, and then later bites an uninfected person.

Should you be concerned to travel?

The World Health Organization recommends that pregnant women continue to avoid travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission due to the increased risks. If you or your partner are planning on traveling internationally, visit the CDC’s website for updates on places with Zika risks.

Pregnant women and couples planning a pregnancy within the next three months should consult with a health care provider while making travel decisions.

“There are certain steps people planning to have a family can take to protect themselves from Zika or a number of other insect-borne diseases,” says Julia Piwoz, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital.

New risks?

Dr. Piwoz says the Aedes mosquito, which is known to transmit Zika virus, is particularly aggressive and bites during the daytime. The Aedes can also transit Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), dengue fever, chikungunya and a number of other viral infections.

The CDC says there have been an increase in EEE cases this year. People infected with the virus usually get flu-like symptoms that last one to two weeks. However, some of those infected with the virus go on to develop more serious complications and even death.

Steps you can take to prevent mosquito bites

  • Use an EPA-registered insect repellent that’s safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning or window and door screens.
  • Remove standing water around your home.
  • Use permethrin-treated clothing and gear(boots, pants, socks, tents).
  • Talk with your health care provider about other risks and consequences of travel.

Zika Symptoms:

Many infected with the virus won’t have symptoms or will only have mild symptoms.

 Decide to travel? What to do when you return home

  • Keep using insect repellent for three weeks after your trip to prevent passing Zika to mosquitoes that could infect other people.
  • Use condoms or avoid having sex for three months after travel to an area at risk for infection.
  • Immediately notify your doctor if you develop a fever, rash, headache, joint pain, red eyes or muscle pain.

Impact of Zika for Children Who Were Previously Exposed in Utero

Getting Zika while pregnant can cause several birth defects including a condition called microcephaly, where the baby’s head is much smaller than normal.

According to a new study recently published in Nature Medicine, nearly a third of children exposed to Zika virus in the womb were found to have developmental disabilities and other problems as toddlers.

“As we follow these kids over time there are many children who may have had normal head growth at birth, but later show some symptoms of developmental issues and other birth defects,” says Lawrence Daniels, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital, However, he adds that researchers still have a lot to learn about the long-term effects of the virus on children.

Who Should Get Tested for Zika Virus?

“Not everyone needs to be tested,” says Dr. Piwoz. “Everyone’s case is unique, and you should consult with your physician if you think you’re at risk.”

The CDC says the following people should be tested for Zika virus:

  • People with a clinically compatible illness who live in or recently traveled to an area where there is risk for infection with Zika and dengue viruses. This includes symptomatic pregnant women.
  • Symptomatic people who had sex with someone who lives in or recently traveled to and area with Zika virus
  • Asymptomatic pregnant women with ongoing possible Zika virus exposure (Example: Living in or frequent travel to an area with risk of Zika)
  • Pregnant women with possible Zika virus exposure who have a fetus with prenatal ultrasound findings consistent with congenital Zika virus infection

Testing is not recommended for:

  • Pregnant women now showing symptoms who have had a recent possible, but not ongoing exposure
  • Non-pregnant asymptomatic people
  • Preconception screening

Dr. Julia Piwoz is the Section Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Lawrence Daniels is a medical director, pediatric neurosurgery, K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.