What you need to know about the Zika virus

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Last week the CDC recommended that pregnant women or women actively trying to become pregnant postpone travel to many countries in the Caribbean, Central, and South America due to an outbreak of the Zika virus which can pose harm to the embryo or fetus.

The Zika virus is carried by the same type of mosquito that transmits Dengue fever and the symptoms of the illness are usually mild and last 4-7 days. People are infected after being bitten and symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and pink eye. Health officials are concerned because after the symptoms have subsided in pregnant women, there has been a spike in the number of cases of babies being born with smaller than average sized heads, something called microcephaly. The causal link between the virus and babies with smaller head sizes is not conclusive but microcephaly is a permanent issue and can cause seizures and mental impairment so it makes sense to be cautious. There is no vaccine for the Zika virus and no anti-viral drug that has been shown to treat the infection once you have it.

Pregnant women or women actively trying to become pregnant should not start booking trips to these countries and should ask themselves what level of risk they are willing to accept if they already have travel plans. This is not a travel ban but a guidance because the CDC is not sure that the spike in microcephaly is due to Zika or what trimester, if any, is the riskiest one but if microcephaly occurs, you cannot undo the damage. If you are trying to become pregnant and are infected, they do not know how long you should wait before becoming pregnant to prevent the risk. At the very least, making sure to use bug repellents with DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 (all of which are safe in pregnant women); wearing long shirts and pants; avoiding parts of the countries with the highest concentrations of mosquitos; and sleeping in mosquito screened or air conditioned bedrooms is in order. With the travel guidance, airlines and hotels will be hard pressed to not refund your money if you fall into this risk category.

Brazil, the site of the summer Olympics,  is the place where this potential link between the Zika virus and microcephaly was first found so it is on the CDC’s travel guidance, along with 16 other countries. Health officials will hopefully have a determination if this risk is real and how big of an issue it is long before the Olympics but it does have the potential to impact it, both from the athletes’ and the spectators’ perspective. CDC.gov will have updated information as it becomes available.

Dr. Michael White, UConn School of Pharmacy