BY DR LYDIA THURTON
Headlines of infants with abnormally small skulls have been in the news for months. The Zika virus has become a media frenzy and with members of the Canadian Caribbean community travelling frequently to tropical regions where the virus has become an epidemic, correct information is essential to making smart travel plans.
The Zika virus is not new, it’s just new to the Western hemisphere. Originally discovered in Uganda in 1947, people in the Americas have no immunity to the virus. It spreads easily through sexual contact and mosquitos.
Only one in five people develop symptoms when infected with Zika. For this reason, the virus never received very much press. Most people don’t even know they have it. Aches, red eyes, slight fever for a few days and no lasting effects. Hospitalization is rare. The exception is pregnant women. These women are at risk of congenital malformations of infant skulls in infected mothers. A condition called microcephaly.
The types of mosquitos that carry the virus are uncommon (although not unheard of) in Canada. Health Canada is advising women to wait at least two months before trying to conceive after going to a Zika infected region. Again, many people don’t even know they have the virus, so best to wait for the immune system to clear it before trying to have a baby. How exactly Zika causes microcephaly is unclear at this time, but the virus definitely does cross the placenta. There is no cure for this and childhood developmental delays are common.
There have been fourteen confirmed Zika cases in Canada. Because the mosquitos are not able to survive Canadian temperatures, sexual contact is the primary transmission risk in cold regions. There are many unknown factors about the sexual transmission. Including female to male transmission and the length of time to avoid intercourse before the virus is cleared.
More than thirty countries are listed as Zika areas, where pregnant females should not travel. South Florida to Polynesia. Many Caribbean islands including Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba and Jamaica – popular travel destinations for Canadians.
Blood testing can be tricky as there can be cross reactions with the virus that causes yellow fever and dengue. Nevertheless, if you are pregnant and concerned because you either live in or have visited a Zika region, get blood testing and an ultrasound. Head malformations do not become visible until the end of the second trimester, so women will have to be patient and see how the baby grows.
Your best bet is to utilize barrier contraception if travelling to these regions. Firstly, Zika can be sexually transmitted without someone knowing, to a female who doesn’t intend to get pregnant. Secondly, half of pregnancies are unplanned. Just because you aren’t actively trying to have a baby, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Use condoms. Be safe.