The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines regarding Zika virus and pregnancy in response to the growing number of infants born with microcephaly.

What Is Zika Virus?

The Zika virus disease is primarily spread through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito species. Symptoms of the disease include fever, rash, conjunctivitis, and joint pains. Infected individuals do not usually develop a serious disease, and consultations for symptoms are rare resulting to underreporting of cases.

First discovered in 1947, Zika has been causing outbreaks in many tropical locations including Africa, Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asia.

Zika And Microcephaly

Pregnant women can be infected with Zika virus and they can transmit it to their fetus during pregnancy, specifically near the time of birth, CDC says.

Infants born from mothers infected with the virus are said to have congenital brain defects, more commonly, microcephaly.

It was in May 2015 that an outbreak of Zika virus was reported in Brazil. However, there is not enough evidence to state that Zika virus during pregnancy directly causes microcephaly in infants because other factors such as gene mutation and presence of toxins and certain infections during pregnancy can also cause microcephaly.

There were several reports that said pyriproxyfen, a pesticide approved for control of disease-carrying mosquitoes, might be the culprit behind microcephaly. But experts cannot establish a strong connection between microcephaly and Zika virus during pregnancy.

Fetuses were also identified to develop other birth defects, such as hearing problems, eye defects, growth impairment, and underdeveloped brain structures. It is not clear how the virus is passed to the fetus. Moreover, if a mother has the virus, it is still uncertain if the infant would have it also, or if the fetus will develop the aforementioned birth defects.

It is also yet to be established as to when in the course of pregnancy, fetuses are most likely to develop birth defects if the mother has the infection.

For this reason, the CDC strongly advises pregnant women not to travel to areas heavily affected by the Zika virus outbreak.

The health agency said that women can get the virus through an infected mosquito bite or through sexual contact with an infected person.

Zika And Its Transmission

Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact. Because of this, the new CDC advises partners of infected individuals to abstain or exercise caution. Condoms should be used properly during oral, anal, and vaginal sex.

For exposed males with symptoms, the agency advises to wait for at least six months before engaging in unprotected sex, as the virus is proven to live longer in the semen.

If exposed but without symptoms, waiting time for unprotected sexual contact is eight weeks.

Recommendations On Future Pregnancies

Since additional studies are being carried out to learn more about Zika virus and its effects on pregnancy, CDC's updated guidelines suggest that women postpone getting pregnant if they live in areas prone to Zika virus.

Those who show symptoms of the viral infection or those who tested positive for the infection, should wait for at least eight weeks upon the symptom's onset before trying to get pregnant.

"We're learning more every day, and evidence of a link between Zika and a spectrum of birth outcomes is becoming stronger and stronger. ... For people who either have the Zika disease or who travel to an area with active Zika transmission, we are now recommending they wait a period of time before trying to get pregnant," said Dr. Denise J. Jamieson, CDC's Zika virus response team member.

Also, available data on Zika virus does not make a previously infected woman at a greater risk of having a child with birth defects in her future pregnancies.

Based on known data, previous Zika infection confers immunity to future infection.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture | Flickr

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