Pregnant women travelling to a number of countries affected by the Zika virus, which has been linked to the development of microcephaly in unborn babies, are urged to discuss the risks with a healthcare professional before travelling. This is according to Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Tokai family medical and dental centre, who advises that pregnant women should take every possible precaution when travelling.
The Zika virus, transmitted by the Aedes genus of mosquitoes, was previously restricted to equatorial regions, but over the last two years it has spread to other areas, most notably Central and South America.
According to the BBC1, since October 2015 there have been almost 4 000 cases of microcephaly in Brazil, a medical condition characterised by smaller and under-developed skulls and brains in infants. Affected children usually have reduced life expectancy, limited brain function and suffer seizures. This represents a significant spike in cases of this previously rare disorder, which seems to correspond with the arrival of the Zika virus in Brazil. In Colombia, the health ministry has even gone so far as to advise women to avoid falling pregnant while the outbreak persists.
“While the link between this mosquito-borne virus and the neurological disorder in infants whose mothers were infected with the Zika virus is still under investigation, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention have issued travel advisories for pregnant women,” Dr Vincent says.
The most common symptoms of illness from the Zika virus disease include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness itself is usually relatively mild and persists for up to a week. Severe illness from the virus, as would require hospitalization, is rare.
The CDC is encouraging pregnant women travelling to affected countries, including Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean, to exercise enhanced precautions. These include measures to protect themselves against daytime feeding mosquitos, which can transmit the virus.
“Pregnant women should consider postponing non-essential travel to countries where the Zika virus is endemic, as the implications of infection for the unborn child can be devastating,” Dr Vincent warns. “Where travel cannot be avoided, pregnant women should discuss the risks with a travel doctor, for example at Netcare Travel Clinics situated across South Africa, who will be able to provide in-depth advice regarding the necessary precautions. There are, however, no vaccinations or prophylactic medications available to prevent infection and so it is advisable to protect oneself against the mosquito bites that transmit the virus.”
A few cases have been reported in US travellers returning from known Zika virus hotspots, but not of direct transmission in North America. It has also been reported1 that the virus could potentially be sexually transmitted, although this is has yet to be medically confirmed.
Steps to prevent mosquito bites:
• Apply a good-quality DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) mosquito repellent, which has been approved as safe for pregnancy at a 30% concentration to any exposed skin.
• If you are wearing sun protection lotion, apply mosquito repellent after the sunscreen.
• Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Mosquitoes are highly unlikely to bite on areas covered by clothing, particularly if the clothing is loose fitting.
• Protect yourself while sleeping with a mosquito net. Remember to check that there are no rips in the fabric and ensure that you do not let the fabric rest against your skin as mosquitoes could bite you through the netting.
• Permethrin insect repellent fabric sprays are very useful to spray on collars, cuffs and the bottoms of long pants, as well as curtains, bedding and mosquito nets.