Update for pregnant women about the Zika virus

Released on: 26 January 2016

Read information here about the Zika virus including signs and symptoms, as well as travel advice for pregnant women about affected areas.

What is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne infection, which does not cause long-term harm in most cases. However, it may be harmful for pregnancies, as it's been linked to birth defects – specifically, abnormally small heads (microcephaly).

Am I at risk of the Zika virus in the UK?

The Zika virus does not occur naturally in the UK. However, as of 18 January 2016, three cases associated with travel to Colombia, Suriname and Guyana have been diagnosed in UK travellers.

The National Travel Health Network and Center (NaTHNaC) in the UK and Public Health England (PHE) recommend that pregnant women should postpone non-essential travel to areas with active Zika transmission until after pregnancy (see list of affected countries below). This is a change to previous advice which encouraged pregnant women to consider avoiding travel and seek travel health advice.

In addition, it is recommended that women should avoid becoming pregnant while travelling in an area with active Zika virus transmission, and for eight weeks following return home. If a woman develops symptoms compatible with Zika virus infection on her return to the UK, it is recommended she avoids becoming pregnant for a further 28 days following recovery.

What should you do if you've recently travelled to a Zika affected country?

Pregnant women, who have recently travelled to Zika affected countries, should inform their obstetrician, midwife or GP on return to the UK that they may have been exposed to the Zika virus, so they can be monitored.

Sexual transmission of the Zika virus

Although the virus is mainly transmitted through mosquitoes, PHE has reported that sexual transmission has been recorded in a ‘limited number of cases'. PHE says: "Condom use is advised for male travellers if their partner is pregnant, during travel and for the duration of the pregnancy. If there is a risk of pregnancy, or pregnancy is planned, condom use is advised during travel and for eight weeks on return from an active Zika transmission area if the male traveller does not have any symptoms compatible with Zika virus infection. If a clinical illness compatible with Zika virus infection has been suspected or confirmed, this advice should be followed for six months following the start of symptoms. Even if not pregnant or planning to be, couples who wish to reduce the very low risk of virus transmission may consider using condoms if the man has had clinical illness compatible with Zika infection."

Case reports suggest that sexual transmission can occur shortly before, during, and after a man has experienced symptoms but also when no symptoms were present.

Read more in the PHE factsheet about the Zika virus.

What if I'm still planning to travel to a Zika-affected area?

PHE recommends that all travellers to areas with active Zika virus transmission should take effective measures to avoid mosquito bites, both during daytime and night time hours (but especially during mid-morning and late afternoon to dusk, when the mosquito that transmits Zika virus is most active). 

An application of insect repellent containing 50% DEET (N,N-diethyl-mtoluamide) will repel mosquitoes for approximately 12 hours. Repellents containing 50% DEET can be used by pregnant women, but higher concentrations should not be used. When both sunscreen and DEET are required, DEET should be applied after the sunscreen. Sunscreen with a 30 to 50 SPF rating should be applied to compensate for DEET-induced reduction in SPF. The use of DEET is not recommended for infants less than two months of age.

Read more in the PHE factsheet about the Zika virus.

What are the symptoms of the Zika virus?

Many people don't have any symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they are usually mild and last around two to seven days. Commonly reported symptoms include:

  • a low-grade fever
  • joint pain (with possible swelling, mainly in the smaller joints of the hands and feet)
  • rash
  • conjunctivitis (red eyes)
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • eye pain

Read more in the PHE factsheet about the Zika virus.

Page last updated: June 2016

More information

NHS Choices has a useful Q&A about the Zika virus for pregnant women.

Public Health England (PHE) has an updated list of countries with confirmed locally-acquired cases.

The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecoloists (RCOG) has information about the Zika virus for pregnant women.