If you’re pregnant and feeling daunted by Zika, here are the facts. We cover the symptoms, treatment and where to avoid.
What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and it’s what causes the Zika virus infection. Generally, people infected with the Zika virus don’t show any symptoms. If people do show symptoms they are in the form of a mild, short-lived illness with symptoms including:
- Itchy skin
- Arthralgia or arthritis
- Muscle pain
- Lower back pain
- Pain behind the eye.
Zika virus: danger to unborn babies
While symptoms are mild, Zika can be serious for pregnant women. It can cause birth defects – in particular microcephaly (abnormally small heads). Congenital Zika virus syndrome refers to the range of foetal abnormalities, as well as microcephaly, reported following exposure to Zika virus in pregnant women (NHS Choices 2016; RCOG 2017).
The risk of birth defects is low compared with other viral infections like rubella. But the incidence of Zika infection can be high during outbreaks. Babies affected early in the pregnancy are more likely to be affected than those in late pregnancy (RCOG, 2017).
The Zika map
The type of mosquito that transmits the Zika virus is not found in the UK. Almost all cases identified in the UK have happened after people travel to countries or areas with active Zika virus transmission (RCOG 2017; PHE 2017).
Where did Zika virus come from?
The Zika virus was first discovered in a Rhesus monkey in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947. There were a few outbreaks in Micronesia and French Polynesia before the outbreak in 2015 (WHO 2015). After that the virus spread rapidly to South America, Central America and the Caribbean (RCOG, 2017).
Zika virus prevention
If you’re pregnant
As there is high risk for unborn babies, pregnant women should:
- Postpone non-essential travel to areas with high risk of Zika virus transmission until after pregnancy.
- Consider postponing non-essential travel to areas with moderate risk of Zika virus transmission until after pregnancy.
(NHS Choices, 2016)
If you have to travel to an area with high and moderate risk of Zika virus transmission, you should:
- After applying your sunscreen, use insect repellent that contains DEET on exposed skin. It can be used by pregnant women and children older than two months, but not by babies younger than two months.
- Wear loose clothing that covers your arms and legs.
- Sleep under a mosquito net in areas with a high risk of malaria.
- Seek travel advice from a GP, practice nurse or a travel clinic four to six weeks before travelling to a country where Zika is prevalent.
- Let your GP or midwife know if you do travel to a Zika zone so you can be monitored and/or tested. Zika can be detected with tests(blood test and ultrasound) when you have symptoms.
- Speak to your GP to rule out malaria if you’re unwell after returning from an area with high or moderate risk of Zika virus.
(NHS Choices, 2016)
If you’re planning a pregnancy
Couples who are planning a pregnancy should check the risk of Zika in the country they are heading for. If your destination is a Zika zone, you should delay trying for a baby.
If it’s only the woman who has travelled, avoid conceiving for eight weeks after you come back. If both or just the male partner travelled, you should use condoms for six months (NHS Choices, 2016; RCOG, 2017).
No specific antiviral treatment is available for Zika virus infection. To help out with your symptoms, you should simply drink plenty of water, take paracetamol and get some rest (NHS Choices, 2016; RCOG, 2017).
This page was last reviewed in February 2018
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NHS Choices. (2016) Zika virus. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/zika/ [Accessed 1st February 2018].
RCOG. (2017) Zika Virus Infection and Pregnancy. Available from: https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/news/zika-virus-rcog-jul… [Accessed 1st February 2018].
PHE. (2017) Zika virus (ZIKV): clinical and travel guidance. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/zika-virus-zikv-clinical-and-… [Accessed 1st February 2018].
WHO (2015). Zika virus infection – Brazil and Colombia. Available from: http://www.who.int/csr/don/21-october-2015-zika/en/ [Accessed 1st February 2018].