Recently there have a number of stories in the media about the Zika virus, as there has been an outbreak in areas of Brazil and the World Health Organisation has warned that it could spread to parts of the United States of America. People have been infected with the virus in parts of Africa and South East Asia, South and Central America and the Caribbean.
What is Zika virus?
Zika virus is an infection that is spread by the Aedes mosquito. The virus can be diagnosed with a blood test. It isn’t harmful in most cases, however women who are pregnant may be at risk from the virus as scientists think it may harm unborn babies. They think that the virus may cause babies to be born with abnormally small heads; this is called microcephaly.
You cannot be infected with the virus in the UK because the mosquito that spreads the virus cannot live in our climate. However if you are travelling to some overseas you may need to take precautions, particularly if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant.
What are the symptoms?
Most people who get the Zika virus don’t have any symptoms. If symptoms do occur they are usually mild and last a few days. They include a high temperature, a red or bumpy rash, joint pains, red eyes, itching and headache.
How can I avoid infection?
If you are thinking of travelling to a country affected by the Zika virus, get advice from your GP or a travel clinic six to eight weeks before you go.
When you are in a country affected by Zika you can reduce your risk of being infected by:
- Avoiding being bitten by the Aedes mosquito by using an insect repellent on exposed skin and wearing loose clothing that covers your arms and legs. Unlike the mosquitos that spread malaria, Aedes mosquitos are most active during the day so you need to be careful at all times.
- Sleeping under a mosquito net at night in areas where malaria is also a risk
What if I’m pregnant or planning to be pregnant?
If you are pregnant, think you may be pregnant or are planning to be pregnant discuss your travel plans with your GP. You should consider postponing your plans to travel to any region affected by Zika. If you must travel then be very careful to avoid insect bites.
If you are pregnant and have already visited a country affected by Zika, tell your GP even if you don’t feel unwell. They will discuss the risks with you and arrange for you to have an ultrasound scan to monitor the growth of your baby.
If you are thinking of having a baby and have been to a country affected by Zika, see your GP for advice even if you haven’t been unwell. It is recommended that you wait at least six months before trying to conceive if you have felt unwell while visiting a country affected by Zika or within two weeks of returning home.
Even if you haven’t been unwell, it is recommended that you wait at least 28 days before trying to conceive after visiting a country where there has been a Zika outbreak.
Sexual transmission of the Zika virus
Usually the Zika virus is spread by mosquitos. However, in a small number of cases, the virus has been spread through sexual intercourse. If your partner has travelled to a country where there is an ongoing Zika outbreak, you should use a condom for 28 days after his return home. If your sexual partner has experienced Zika symptoms or a doctor has confirmed that he has been infected with Zika, you should use a condom for six months following recovery.
What to do if you are worried
If you are worried about the Zika virus or if your baby has been affected speak to your doctor or midwife for advice.
(Photo credit: CDC Public Health Library, photographer James Gathany. Image is in the public domain and Thomas Pompernigg)