Preventing Zika virus in Pregnant Women Top Priority for Illinois Health Department

The Zika virus threatens the health of unborn children. Photo courtesy of J.K. Califf.

By Stephanie Golden

Protection of pregnant women against the Zika virus, which has been linked to a major birth defect, is the No. 1  priority for the Illinois Department of Public Health, a state spokeswoman said.

“The Illinois Department of Public Health is supporting guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and is focusing efforts to educate obstetricians,” said Melaney Arnold, a public information officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Illinois Department of Health is reporting three confirmed travel-related cases of Zika virus in Illinois residents. Two of the cases involved pregnant women and the third was a man. The department discovered these individuals traveled separately to Colombia, Haiti and Honduras.

Because of the recent outbreaks, health officials are anticipating the number of Zika cases to increase among travelers visiting or returning to the United States. There have been more than 50 cases reported in the United States and more than 4,000 cases documented internationally.

“The Illinois Department of Public Health has provided direction on what health care providers should be looking for and do, as well as providing a laboratory testing protocol,” said Arnold. “The department is in the process of obtaining certification from the CDC to test for Zika virus.”

The concern about the virus in pregnant women was elevated after the CDC reported a surge in the number of babies being born with microcephaly to mothers infected with Zika virus during their pregnancy. Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected. Babies with the birth defect always have smaller brains that do not develop properly.“Microcephaly can cause lifelong disabilities and be life-threatening,” said Dr. Cindy Moore, director, Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It can have a devastating impact on babies and their families.”

“Microcephaly can cause lifelong disabilities and be life-threatening,” said Dr. Cindy Moore, director, Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It can have a devastating impact on babies and their families.”

Alarms about the Zika virus in pregnant women were raised after the CDC revealed its recent findings Wednesday. CDC Director Tom Frieden told members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that the virus was found in the tissue of two babies who died of microcephaly in Brazil.

“This is the strongest evidence to date that Zika is the cause of microcephaly,” said Frieden. “However, the findings did not prove that the virus causes the birth defect  … More tests are needed before the link can be proven definitively.”

The CDC on Friday said it recommends pregnant women in any trimester and women trying to conceive to avoid Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico.

“At this time, we know that the best way to protect pregnant women from Zika is to delay travel to areas with ongoing Zika transmission,” said Dr. Denise Jamieson, chief, Women’s Health and Fertility Branch, Division of Reproductive Health at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Pregnant women and women trying to conceive who must travel to the regions and territories under the travel advisory should talk to their doctor or health care provider.

Also, the CDC recommends following these steps to prevent mosquito bites.

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Use EPA-registered insect repellents containing DEET.
  • Always follow the product label instructions.
  • Reapply insect repellent as directed.
  • If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.
  • Use permethrin-treated clothing and gear (such as boots, pants, socks, and tents).
  • Stay in places with air-conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are unable to protect yourself from mosquito bites.

According to the CDC, the Zika virus is primarily transmitted to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. However, it has been discovered that it can be transmitted sexually and from a pregnant mother to her baby during pregnancy or around the time of birth.

“The guidelines recommend that men who either live in or have traveled to an area of active Zika virus transmission and who have a pregnant sex partner should use condoms during sex, or abstain from sexual activity during the duration of pregnancy,” said Arnold

According to public health officials about one in five people infected with Zika will get sick. Many people do not realize they have been infected because the symptoms are mild.

The most common symptoms of the disease are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis, which is reddening of the eyes. Typically, symptoms begin two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito. It is important for pregnant women experiencing those symptoms within two weeks of traveling to a place where the virus has been reported to see their health care providers.

The CDC recommends pregnant women who have symptoms or traveled to an area where there has been Zika transmission “be offered testing between two and 12 weeks after returning from areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission,” said Arnold.

Currently, there is no vaccine or medicine to treat the Zika virus. For more questions and answers on the Zika virus and pregnancy, visit the CDC’s website.