Infectious Diseases

01 February 2016

Pregnant women in SA warned about Zika virus

Pregnant women should avoid going to countries where the Zika virus is endemic, as the implications of infection for the unborn child can be devastating, warns a doctor.

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Pregnant women in South Africa are urged to avoid going to countries where the Zika virus is endemic as the Americas scramble to control the spread of the mosquito-borne virus.

Link still under investigation

There are no vaccinations or prophylactic medications available to prevent infection, according to Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Tokai family medical and dental centre.  

Read: Will the Zika virus spread to South Africa?

The virus has been linked to the development of microcephaly which is 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.

“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’ Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention have issued travel advisories for pregnant women,” said Dr Vincent."

The Zika virus, which is 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.

Brazil has been the hardest hit by the virus and according to AFP, the country together with the United States agreed to launch a high-level bilateral group to develop a vaccine against the virus.

Protection advisable

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 hospitalisation, is rare.

View: Map of countries and territories with Zika transmissions

Dr Pete Vincent advised that pregnant women should take every possible precaution when travelling."

“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."

Where travel cannot be avoided, Dr Vincent recommended that pregnant women should discuss the risks with a travel doctor.

"It is advisable to protect oneself against the mosquito bites that transmit the virus."

Here are some 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.

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) believes South Africa is not likely to be at risk of Zika.

Professor Lucille Blumberg, who is a deputy director at the NICD, told SABC news in a TV interview: "I think South Africa really doesn't have a risk of Zika."

However, she warned that pregnant women should be careful about going abroad. "Pregnant women should not travel to places like Brazil at the moment."

Also read:

Zika virus - 14 things you need to know

Zika virus spreads to more tropical destinations

Brazil waging war against Zika mosquito

US may develop vaccine for Zika virus

Don't be fooled by 'mild' Zika virus

Zika virus: pregnant women shouldn't travel to Brazil

Surge of Brazilian babies born with small heads