The virus, transmitted by mosquitoes, has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains. Some countries have advised women not to become pregnant now, with health officials in El Salvador advising women of reproductive age there to delay pregnancy until 2018.
The World Health Organization announced this week that the virus will probably spread to all countries in the Americas, except for Canada and Chile, because of the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which appears to be responsible for Zika cases documented thus far, and which thrives in tropical and subtropical climates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted guidelines for controlling the spread of the virus.
Joseph Apuzzio, M.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New Jersey Medical School, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, has treated women with high-risk pregnancies for more than 30 years.
Rutgers Today spoke to Apuzzio about how pregnant women should deal with their concerns:
Rutgers Today: What would make women suspect that they could have the Zika virus?
Apuzzio: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that pregnant women who have visited the countries where the virus has been documented and within two weeks of the visit have symptoms — fever, rash, muscle aches and conjunctivitis — they should consider that they’ve potentially contracted the virus.
Symptoms, however, appear in only about 20 percent of infected individuals, so women who aren’t symptomatic — even though they’ve been bitten by mosquitoes carrying the virus — may be infected as well.
Rutgers Today: What should women do if they fear they could be infected?
Apuzzio: Women concerned that they might have contracted the Zika virus should immediately visit their obstetrical care providers, who will evaluate them and determine if blood testing is necessary.
If a woman is tested, her blood specimens are then sent to the CDC for analysis. Unfortunately, because no commercial test exists in the U.S. at this time, the turnaround time for the CDC to determine whether a woman is carrying the infection could be several days or more.
Since the Zika virus infection during pregnancy has been associated with fetal microcephaly — which can cause abnormally small heads and serious, sometimes deadly, developmental delays — obstetrical ultrasound examinations of the fetus should be periodically performed.
Rutgers Today: How would you treat a pregnant woman infected with the Zika virus?
Apuzzio: There is no specific medication to treat this virus, and therefore we would treat any Zika patients supportively, generally treat the symptoms. The most difficult part of this is the realization that it is not curable or reversible if a mother and fetus are infected.
Rutgers Today: What are the chances of a woman contracting the Zika virus?
Apuzzio: While the chances of women living in the U.S. contracting the virus are low, the CDC is recommending that pregnant women or those wishing to become pregnant should not travel to the 22 countries and territories believed to be experiencing the largest Zika outbreak.