The recent World Health Organization news that the mosquito-spread Zika virus is a “public health emergency of international concern" has everyone on high alert. While 80 percent of people infected with the virus never realize they have it, pregnant women who are bitten by a Zika-infected mosquito are at risk for delivering babies with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder in which the head and brain are much smaller than normal. What precautions can pregnant women take, and what should they do if they think they're at risk? We spoke with pediatrician and geneticist Dr. Ed McCabe, chief medical officer for the March of Dimes, to find out.
1. Use bug spray with DEET
Typically off-limits for pregnant women because of toxicity (although it's only toxic in high usage levels), DEET's been temporarily given the green light from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since it's the most effective mosquito repellant. Beyond using bug spray, those traveling to mosquito-heavy areas should wear long sleeves, pants and hats to minimize exposed skin. Staying indoors as much as possible is a good idea too.
2. Avoid discretionary travel to affected areas
Right now, the CDC lists reports of Zika in 24 countries, and is routinely updating its travel recommendations. Three affected countries—Colombia, Jamaica and El Salvador—are even recommending women refrain from getting pregnant for the next two years. If you do need to make a trip to the affected Latin American and Caribbean areas, McCabe emphasizes not booking a trip during your first trimester.
"We don't have any final data, but it appears the worst time to contract Zika is the first trimester, when the [baby's] brain is rapidly developing," he says.
3. Look into airline refunds
Already have that destination babymoon planned? In light of the CDC recommendation that unnecessary travel to Zika-infected areas be avoided, American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta are allowing customers to cancel or postpone their flights.
4. Decide if you want to get tested
Since 80 percent of infected individuals don't show signs or symptoms of Zika, a pregnant woman may not even know she is carrying the virus. But if she's traveled to a Zika-infected region at any point during her pregnancy, McCabe recommends she get in touch with her health care provider and ask if a test or ultrasound is appropriate.
"The problem is that the two tests available aren't very good," says McCabe. "Both the CDC and Brazil are working on a better test." An ultrasound is a better way to determine if a fetus has microcephaly, which the CDC is "strongly associating" with Zika. An ultrasound technician will be able to take a look at head shape and size to potentially diagnose microcephaly, which is defined as greater than two standard deviations below the mean head size for baby's age and gender.
That being said, there is nothing you can do to change or treat this diagnosis. If you feel you're better off not knowing, that is okay too.
5. Know that microcephaly is not a death sentence
"I've met several prominent and bright people who have microcephaly," says McCabe. "There are individuals with microcephaly who are not developmentally damaged. While it currently appears microcephaly caused by Zika is linked to developmental delays, not every baby with microcephaly will have them."