Should you be worried? (Photo: Getty Images)
I’m pregnant and I just canceled a highly anticipated vacation to St. Maarten. And it’s all because of mosquitoes — and their connection to Zika virus, to be exact.
Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that was previously thought to be relatively harmless, is causing widespread panic throughout many South American countries and the Caribbean due to its link with birth defects.
Zika has increasingly been tied to a rapid spike in babies born in Brazil with severe brain damage and unusually small heads, an incurable condition known as microcephaly. The virus is spreading through the Americas and the Caribbean, and health officials in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Jamaica, and El Salvador are urging women to wait to have children, in some cases for as long as two years.
With that in mind, it’s pretty easy to make the call when it comes down to weighing the pros and cons of spending a midwinter week at the beach vs. putting my future child at risk of having severe, yet preventable, brain damage.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning that encourages women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant to avoid traveling to regions affected by Zika, it hasn’t addressed whether pregnant women in the U.S. should be concerned.
Naturally, a lot of pregnant American women are starting to panic. Is that worry valid?
“I would say not right now, but in the next couple of months, pregnant women need to really pay attention to the news and find out if and when Zika virus has spread to the U.S.,” Rick Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health.
Many experts have expressed concern that Zika may spread to the U.S. by late spring or early summer, and the World Health Organization recently predicted that the virus will spread to all but two countries in South, Central, and North America (including the U.S.).
While Zika is currently being treated as a travel-related illness for Americans, board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health that it’s quite possible that it will establish itself in the U.S. “In that situation, that would change the way we approach it,” he says. “It would make it much more difficult to limit risk.”
Here’s why: Zika virus is currently transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is commonly found in southern U.S. states such as Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, and in some parts of New Mexico and California.
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But Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, which are found in many parts of the U.S., may also transmit Zika.
Basically, if it spreads through the U.S. Aedes mosquito population, Zika can be a big potential problem for pregnant women through a large portion of the U.S.
Again, Adalja stresses that it’s a geographically restricted disease … for now. If you live in a warmer climate or need to travel to an area that has seen Zika outbreaks, he recommends avoiding mosquitos as much as possible. That means staying out of areas that have high-density mosquito populations, getting rid of standing water on your property (which mosquitos love), wearing insect repellent, and wearing protective clothing. “That’s really all you can do at this point,” he says.
Planning to stay far, far away from Zika-infected areas? Smart move, says Watkins, adding that you should also be in communication with your doctor as the weather gets warmer. “We’re getting a lot of alerts from the CDC, keeping us aware of what’s going on,” he says.
One more thing to note: The National Institutes of Health is working on a Zika vaccine, although there’s no word on when it will be available or if it will be safe for women who are already pregnant.
In the meantime, don’t panic — although I know it’s tempting. Zika virus makes me want to throw my ever-expanding body into a protective bubble the second the weather turns warm. Just keep an eye on the news and save that trip to South America or the Caribbean for next year.
More on the Zika virus on Yahoo Health: