A mosquito-borne disease called Zika has been in the headlines for its possible links to birth defects. More than 4,000 babies born in Brazil, where the virus has spread rapidly, have been born with microcephaly: smaller than normal heads and brain damage. Doctors and officials are still working to determine how many of the cases are directly related to Zika.
Women of child-bearing age and those who are pregnant have concerns and questions about the virus, even if they are not living in Brazil or other areas where mosquitos are a public health problem. Here's what you should know about Zika based on what researchers know to date.
How is Zika spread?
Most human cases of Zika are transmitted by a particular type of mosquito, the Aedes species mosquito (A. aegypti and A. albopictus). In order to get the virus, one of these mosquitos must bite an infected person and then bite you. Researchers are looking into reports of transmission via sexual contact and blood transfusions, as well as transmission from mother to fetus.
These mosquitos typically live in tropical climates and are responsible for spreading other diseases, including yellow fever and dengue fever. They may be present in southern areas of the United States, but are primarily found in Central and South America.
How does Zika impact fetal development?
Adults who catch the Zika virus may be mildly ill for a few days, but the big issue lies in the impact it may have on unborn babies. All that researchers know for certain now is that many of the babies born in South America with microcephaly also showed genetic material from the virus in their brains and amniotic fluid, meaning that they had possibly been infected in utero.
Speculation around how -- and even if -- Zika causes birth defects are not scientifically tested yet and it may take years to fully understand the link. Right now, scientists suspect that birth defects may be caused when mothers get the infection in the first two months of pregnancy.
Are there other potential causes of microcephaly in Brazil?
Because officials are trying to find answers as to why so many babies are born with this birth defect, questions have come up about a link to the insecticide that kills mosquitos in the affected areas. Some environmental experts in Argentina suggested that pyriproxyfen may be to blame for the increase in birth defects.
But this pesticide had been in use for decades before the spike in microcephaly cases, and officials in Brazil have said that the cases are present in areas where the chemical was not used.
Should U.S. women be concerned about Zika?
Right now, there are no cases of Zika being transmitted in the U.S. Some women who have traveled to affected areas have returned with the virus, making it a concern. Talk with your OBGYN, like Rural Health Services Consortium Incor, about additional fetal testing if you have traveled to an impacted country or if you have been in contact with a person infected with Zika.
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