What You Need to Know About the Zika Virus: Pregnancy and Sexual Transmission?

Bangalore, Karnataka, India
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a public health emergency for Zika virus. The Zika virus disease, more commonly known simply as “Zika” is a disease caused by transmission of the Zika Virus usually through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. This genus of mosquitoes act as the carrier for the virus, while they were originally found in tropical and subtropical zones they are now persisting for a few days to a week after the initial infection. These symptoms generally include skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headache. There is no treatment or vaccine for Zika currently available, treatment generally focuses on relieving symptoms and includes rest, hydration and medication for fever and joint pains. As the illness is fairly mild, does not usually require hospitalisation and deaths from contracting the Zika Virus are extremely rare, the panic surrounding the recent outbreak of Zika in Africa and consequently the Americas may seem confusing.

While being infected with Zika doesn’t inflict long-term damage under normal circumstances, when pregnant women are infected, the virus can be transmitted from the mother to the foetus. Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called Microcephaly, as well as other severe foetal brain defects. Microcephaly is abnormal smallness of the head, a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development. Studies show that the virus appears to preferentially target developing brain cells, making foetuses particularly vulnerable. While doctors maintain that no official link between Zika Virus and birth defects has been established, the evidence is undoubtedly mounting. Since October, Brazil, ground-zero for the Zika outbreak, has had around 4000 births of babies with Microcephaly. In subsequent studies, the mothers reported having experienced Zika-like symptoms during their pregnancy. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization asserted, “The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from mild threat to one of alarming proportions.”

Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, states, “Other problems have been detected among foetuses and infants infected with Zika virus before birth, such as defects of the eye, hearing loss, and impaired growth.” Case studies in women care indicate that an infection early in pregnancy could even result in pregnancy loss. Several studies followed the extremely large incidence of brain damage in children born to mothers infected with the Zika Virus in Brazil. The city of Recife in Brazil is at the centre of the recent outbreak, a team of doctors commented, “The brain damage caused by Zika virus infection in these children was extremely severe, indicating a poor prognosis for neurological function. This scenario might be the worse one in the disease severity spectrum.” The babies also displayed brain calcification on CT scan reports as well as deformations of cortical development, decreased brain volume, and ventriculomegaly.

It is known that the Zika virus can spread through sexual intercourse with a man infected with Zika to his partners. The virus has a propensity to survive longer in semen than in blood, so infection through sexual contact may occur long after symptoms have subsided. It is not yet known if the virus can be transmitted by an infected woman to her sex partner or through other bodily fluids such as saliva or vaginal fluids. Although the Zika virus has not spread widely in India, Manipal Hospitals urges all pregnant women to be especially cautious and take required precautions. Preventing mosquito bites is the best way to avoid contracting the Zika Virus. This can be done by maintaining clean surroundings, staying away from areas with stagnant water or damp waste and using mosquito repellent on exposed skin. All stagnant water in the house including flower vases and indoor plant containers should be regularly checked and cleaned. Sexual transmission of the illness can be prevented by practising safe sex or abstaining from sex for the duration of the pregnancy. Pregnant women should avoid travel to areas with Zika outbreak and in case their male partners travel to these areas, abstain from sex for upto 4 weeks after return.