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Do I still need to worry about the Zika virus?

You may have noticed that news coverage of the Zika virus has dwindled in recent months, perhaps leaving you confused about whether it is still a concern for women during pregnancy. Unfortunately, the Zika virus is still active in many parts of the world so if you or your partner are planning travel overseas, it’s best to stay informed about the potential risk of infection. In this blog article, I explain why the Zika virus poses a risk during pregnancy, and what you can do to avoid infection.

What is the Zika virus?

Similar to other well-known diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. So if your travel plans include the Northern Hemisphere, you need to keep in mind that these countries are heading into Summer and the number of mosquitos around will be on the rise.

While the infection is typically not severe in adults, around 20% of those infected will experience flu-like symptoms, such as fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, headache, and a general lack of energy. These symptoms tend to improve within just a few days.

Why should pregnant women worry about Zika virus?

If a pregnant woman is infected with the virus, she can pass it on to her unborn baby. Unlike in adults, the infection can have severe consequences for a developing fetus, with high chances of miscarriage or birth defects. In particular, Zika virus can cause a condition called microcephaly – where the baby’s head is small due to abnormal brain development. This can lead to seizures and intellectual disability, or in some cases, can be fatal.

Microcephaly vs normal head size

How do I avoid Zika virus infection?

The good news is that Zika virus has not spread to mosquitos in Australia. However, many other countries around the world are still affected by the virus, so the best way to prevent infection is to avoid travelling to countries with known infection risk. The Australian Department of Health categorises countries based on risk of Zika infection. You can use this resource to guide travel plans if you are pregnant or planning pregnancy. In general, it is recommended that you avoid all higher-category countries. For travel involving countries in lower categories, it is recommended that you seek an individual risk assessment from your GP, obstetrician or a doctor who specialises in infectious diseases.

What if I cannot avoid travel to one of these countries?

If you must travel to a Zika-affected country, you should talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your risk of infection. Of course, the most obvious way to do this is to undertake all appropriate steps to avoid being bitten by a mosquito.

Are there other ways to contract Zika virus?

Although mosquito bites are the most common way the Zika virus spreads, it can also be transmitted through sexual activity. Because of this, it is important that you also factor in your partner’s potential exposure to Zika virus. Whether you are already pregnant or planning a pregnancy, it is recommended that you avoid unprotected sex for at least 8 weeks if your partner has been in a Zika-affected country. Alternatively, if you have travelled to a Zika-affected country and are planning a pregnancy, you should avoid unprotected sex and pregnancy for at least 8 weeks following your return. In either scenario, consider testing for Zika exposure prior to having unprotected sex.

Can Zika virus infection be treated?

Currently there are no treatments for Zika virus infection. However, the World Health Organization has declared the development of a Zika vaccine a global health priority, and vaccination trials are showing promise. Until a treatment or vaccine has been proven effective, it is important to keep up to date with the latest precautionary advice.

Are your upcoming travel plans worrying you?

If you are concerned about your travel plans, you can arrange a personal risk assessment by calling my rooms on (03) 9418 8299 or booking online. Alternatively, contact your GP or closest travel clinic.

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