Disease expert urges Zika caution
Women who have travelled to Zika affected areas have been urged to delay getting pregnant amid concerns about the effects of the virus on unborn babies.
Laura Riley, the director of obstetrics and gynaecology infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital, spoke to The Royal Gazette after the Ministry of Health stated it was testing three people who had returned from overseas and were suspected of having the virus.
“Now is not the time for the unplanned pregnancy,” Dr Riley said. “People really need to think about it beforehand, as they should in general.
“And unless they absolutely must get pregnant right now, I think a number of people are going to end up waiting as they try to figure out ‘have I been infected?'.”
She added that the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is advising women who have been to high-risk areas and want to get pregnant to wait eight weeks after leaving the area, whereas partners should wait six months because the virus has been shown to persist in semen for “a lot longer”.
“What I've told my patients is if you're going to the Olympics, you're not pregnant yet and you're planning it, don't plan to get pregnant right when you come back,” Dr Riley said.
“At least wait some period of time. And if you have symptoms, you should wait even longer.”
Bermuda is still deemed to be Zika free. However, no update from the Department of Health regarding the suspected cases was available by press time last night.
But Dr Riley said it was “important information” that the suspected cases are thought to be imported, adding: “There should be far less hysteria if it's imported than if it occurs in Bermuda, which would suggest that there are infected mosquitoes in Bermuda.”
The virus, which was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organisation in January, has been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome and microcephaly.
A range of other neurological complications are also being investigated and Dr Riley cautioned that some of these may not be evident until later in life.
And while it “looks preliminarily like it affects between 1 and 30 per cent of pregnancies”, Dr Riley added that “it's a moving target”.
“We don't know so much about this disease that we can say the person who gets it at 32 weeks is not at risk but the person who gets it at 12 weeks is really in trouble.”
“We're still in learn mode. There's a lot going on but there's a lot still to be learnt.
“Treatment for these diseases is going to come after we figure out what exactly the disease is doing.”
She added that it is “everybody's concern that the people coming back from the Olympics are going to bring it with them”.
“That is possible but hopefully the people who are going to the Olympics are taking as many precautions as they possibly can to avoid getting bitten so that they are not bringing disease back. And then once they get back, hopefully they're continuing to be diligent about not getting bitten once they get home because that's not going to do us any good either.”
Should Zika become established in Bermuda, Dr Riley's said pregnant women would need to “take as much precaution as they possibly can”.
This includes wearing insect repellent that contains DEET “even during the day”, as well as long sleeves, spraying clothes, and minimising the mosquito population “within their own area”.
And if pregnant women present with Zika symptoms, Dr Riley said they should talk to their obstetrician, “so that they can test you if that is what's deemed necessary”.
While Zika is most commonly spread by mosquitoes in the Aedes genus, Dr Riley stressed that sexual transmission is also possible.
“Transmission occurs mosquito to person, transmission occurs mother to baby, transmission occurs between sexually active couples. If your partner develops the infection or goes to an area of high risk and could be infected, then you should either refrain from intercourse for the rest of pregnancy or should wear condoms so that he doesn't infect you while pregnant.
“The other preventive strategy is to avoid travelling to places where Zika is widespread.”