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What moms-to-be need to know about the Zika virus

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself

Nothing is more alarming for moms-to-be than the threat of exposing herself and her unborn child to illnesses that may affect her pregnancy and the health of her baby. This week, the Department of Health reported two more additional cases in Iloilo City, where a 45-year-old woman was first reported to have been the first case of local transmission. As of press time, the total number of cases reported in the Philippines has climbed to eight.

(Manila Bulletin)

(Manila Bulletin)

Despite the low numbers, Zika is worrying not least because many of the infected may not exhibit symptoms. The last two patients did not experience anything more than mild rashes and did not require hospitalization. A new research saying Zika can be transmitted sexually also complicates the issue for many women. The studies reveal that the virus can stay in an infected male’s semen for many weeks, and doctors recommend that men who have traveled in countries where Zika is present should abstain from sex, or use a condom, for at least six months.

In each of the confirmed cases so far, a man who had traveled to a region affected by Zika then passed the virus to his female partner (it’s not yet known if women can pass Zika to men).

Despite being a benign illness, Zika fever has been a cause of concern worldwide because if it occurs during pregnancy, it can give rise to an infant with microcephaly, a condition where the head and brain are smaller than normal. It is also linked to numerous nervous system problems such as seizures, intellectual disability, gait and balance disorders, developmental delay, and vision and hearing impairments. There have also been increased reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an uncommon ailment affecting the nervous system that causes temporary paralysis, in areas affected by Zika.

Until recently, researchers thought the Zika virus posed significant risk to the fetus—but now we’re finding out that the effects were in fact caused by it, and it can be confirmed that microcephaly is caused by Zika.

But there are still many questions researchers don’t know: What is the percentage of risk that a pregnant woman will pass it on her to baby? Can a baby be infected and yet not develop microcephaly? Can a woman who is infected with Zika have a miscarriage instead? Does being pregnant make you more susceptible to having Zika?

Another question: If a woman who is not pregnant now gets Zika, will it affect her future pregnancies? These questions, unfortunately, still have no definite answers, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), as no clinical studies exist yet to measure the risk to the unborn child. The virus has been detected in fetal tissue, amniotic fluid, full-term infants, in the placenta, and in trace amounts, even in breastmilk (but so tiny that it is not considered a threat.) Researchers also say that if Zika were to be transmitted via breastmilk, it may only cause mild rashes, and the benefits of breastfeeding will outweigh the risk.

Travel warnings

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  has issued a Level 2 travel notice urging women who are pregnant to avoid visiting the following countries: American Samoa, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico—US Territory, Costa Rica, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Martin, Samoa, Suriname, Tonga, US Virgin Islands, and Venezuela. This list changes daily, so check for updates.

If you must travel, talk to your doctor before traveling to these areas and follow steps to avoid getting bitten during the trip. Although most viruses have the most serious impact during the first trimester of pregnancy, we cannot say for sure if this is also true of Zika.

(Manila Bulletin)

(Manila Bulletin)

Tips for pregnant women who may have been exposed to Zika

1. Asymptomatic pregnant women who’ve been exposed to Zika should be tested between two and 12 weeks after returning from a trip, or right away if symptoms are present.

2. The CDC recommends that pregnant women without symptoms who live in Zika-affected areas should be tested at the start of prenatal care, and midpoint during the second semester.

3. Even if you don’t show signs but feel like you have been exposed, have an ultrasound so your baby will be checked. An amniocentesis should follow if there is concern.

4. Newborns should be tested if the mother has visited an affected area.

5. Women who want to have a baby with a male partner who’s recently traveled or lived in an exposed area should ask their doctor for advice. A Zika test may be possible but priority will first be given to women who are already pregnant.