Photo: Yahoo Health/iStock
By now, you’ve likely seen headlines about the Zika virus — particularly, how it’s tied to reports of pregnant women giving birth to infants with abnormally small heads (microcephaly, which reduces the size of the baby’s brain). Microcephaly causes severe developmental issues and, in some cases, death.
There has been a surge of new Zika virus cases in Latin America, prompting the World Health Organization to convene an emergency committee to discuss its “explosive” spread. In Brazil, there have been 3,893 reported incidences of microcephaly since October 2015, compared with the previous average of only 160 cases per year, according to BBC News. Outbreaks have been reported in more than 22 countries — many in South America, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Mexico — prompting the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to release travel guidelines encouraging mothers-to-be and those trying to conceive to steer clear of countries experiencing outbreaks. (There is no treatment for or vaccine against the virus.)
So if you’re planning to get pregnant in the near future, what are you supposed to make of all this? If you’re infected with Zika virus now, but then get pregnant months down the road, is your baby at risk?
The good news: If you get bit by a Zika-infected mosquito and become pregnant a few weeks later, the virus won’t harm the unborn baby, the CDC says. “The virus appears in the blood stream, but it’s for a very short period of time” — about a week, per the CDC, explains Yvonne Maldonado, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. If you’re not pregnant when you get infected and then become pregnant weeks or months afterward, the virus will have already been cleared from your blood stream.
However, the CDC advises that women trying to get pregnant should talk to their doctor before traveling to infected areas and follow their physician’s advice on the best ways to avoid mosquito bites — the only way to protect yourself from the virus at this time. “If it were me and I was just visiting [an area where the Zika virus transmission is ongoing], I’d hold off,” says Maldonado.
If you’re already pregnant, the CDC recommends considering postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is happening. If you need to travel to one of these high-risk areas, consult with your doctor and find out what specific steps you should take to avoid mosquito bites during the trip, including using insect repellants that are safe for pregnant women.
Several countries, such as El Salvador, are asking women to avoid becoming pregnant until these outbreaks are under control. “If you’re living in one of those areas, it’s got to be a terrible decision to have to make,” Maldonado says. “There is definitely a risk.”
There are no reports of infants getting Zika virus through breastfeeding to date, according to the CDC. Because of breastfeeding’s benefits, new moms are encouraged to keep breastfeeding even if they live in or are visiting areas where the Zika virus is found.
More on the Zika virus on Yahoo Health:
Read This Next: Why El Salvador Is Urging Women to Not Get Pregnant Until 2018