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Your Questions Answered About the Zika Virus

'Should I worry about mosquito bites here in Washington?' 'Can I travel when I'm pregnant?' 'How alarmed should I be?' Here's what you need to know about the Zika virus

Published on: February 02, 2016

UPDATE (May 23, 2016)

Two pregnant women in Washington state have tested positive for Zika, according to multiple outlets on Friday, May 20. They must wait three weeks to find out if the virus has impacted their pregnancies, adds Seattle news station KOMO

The two women join a national registry created by the CDC that tracks all pregnant women infected by the virus. To date, there have been four total cases of Zika reported in Washington state. Nationally, 279 pregnant women have been infected with 122 located in Puerto Rico, according to numbers recently released by the CDC.

UPDATE (April 18, 2016)

Earlier this month, experts officially confirmed the Zika virus can cause severe birth defects in babies born to infected mothers, ending months of speculation and debate.

“There is no longer any doubt that Zika causes microcephaly [a serious birth defect resulting in a smaller than average brain in infected newborns],” the director of the CDC told the New York Times. “Never before in history has there been a situation where a bite from a mosquito can result in a devastating malformation.” 

The CDC continues to post the latest information. Highlights include: 

  • Zika can be spread by a man to his sex partners. Prevent sexual transmission of Zika by using condoms or not having sex.

  • Travel-associated cases of Zika have been reported throughout the U.S., including in Washington state.

  • Zika doesn’t only affect pregnant women; the autoimmune disease Guillain-Barré syndrome can occur after exposure to the virus. Guillain-Barré is fatal about 5 percent of the time, according to the World Health Organization.

Dr. Swanson, featured in the original ParentMap article, continues to update her website. Her latest post: “New Zika Advice: Sex and Ways to Protect Yourself.”

ORIGINAL STORY (Feburary 1, 2016)

While I survived thousands of mosquito bites during my Minnesota childhood, the pictures of a mosquito paired with the term Zika virus still ups my inner fear level. A recent Washington Post headline read: WHO: Zika virus ‘spreading explosively,’ level of alarm 'extremely high.’

WHO is the abbreviation for the World Health Organization. If they are freaking out, should I be freaking out? Wait, I’m not pregnant or planning a pregnancy. In hopes of calming fears and seeking clarity, I call Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a general pediatrician and executive director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital. By the end of our conversation, my fear meter has returned to low. Here’s what she had to say.

Q: In The Washington Post I read that “23 countries are affected by mosquitoes that are spreading the virus locally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the United States has 31 confirmed cases in 11 states and the District of Columbia. All are travel-related.” Is it true that people who should be worried are pregnant women who have travel plans to these countries?

A: The story is really unfolding right now in real time. What people should know is that the WHO is convening because they believe the Zika virus will spread across North and South America (although Canada isn’t home to the variation of mosquito that carries the virus). This isn’t just about traveling. Because mosquitos carry the virus and live where we live we are likely going to see more of this as weather warms in the U.S.

But yes, right now for those in the Pacific Northwest it is about traveling. If you are pregnant, it doesn’t make sense to travel to one of these countries. If you are going to have baby in two years, go. If you aren’t pregnant, pack your birth control! The danger is for babies in utero during all trimesters of pregnancy and at the time of delivery.

The WHO will have more news next week, and the CDC is starting international studies. For our local population, the risk right now for pregnant women who don’t leave the Pacific Northwest is exceedingly low.

Q: When should local people start to worry? The pictures in my newsfeed are alarming.

A: If you are pregnant or actively trying to become pregnant, talk to your obstetrician about travel plans. We have until this summer to worry about mosquitos in our area. If you’re lucky enough to have the resources to travel internationally, save the money and go later or select a destination not on the CDC travel advisory list. Multiple companies are providing generous refunds that are reflective of the amount of uncertainty and fear we are currently feeling.

The smartest thing we can do is calm down. It’s winter and in this area of the country, we don’t have a lot of mosquitos even in the summer. When summer arrives, check the CDC for updates on travel warnings related to the Zika virus. 

Q: What is worrisome about the Zika virus?

A: What’s unsettling is this is a little bit invisible. If you do get bitten by a mosquito with the virus, 80 percent of people don’t even know they have the virus. This exposure that lacks symptomology, which makes it harder to see how it spreads in real time. And people who are planning to get pregnant, or are actively trying to get pregnant or are expecting a baby are an anxious cohort. But for this population, if you aren’t leaving the Pacific Northwest for travel to these countries, you are very safe.

The two things newsfeeds are showing right now are Trump and the Zika virus. The reason for this is because the data is fuzzy. I talk about this data on my recent blog post:

“Here’s the current theory: Pregnant women are being bitten by mosquitoes who carry the Zika virus. In turn, the mothers are infected with the Zika virus and transmit it to their unborn fetus, potentially contributing to changes in development of their baby (during any trimester) including how the brain and nervous system grows. Because of the global data of increased cases of Zika concurrent to an increase in rates of microcephaly in the same region, researchers believe Zika may be the cause. This is yet to be officially linked and proven at a cellular or structural level. No one knows why Zika virus could cause this. CDC: 'Some infants with possible Zika virus infection have been found to have intracranial calcifications and abnormal eye findings. It is not known if Zika virus infection caused any of these abnormalities.'”

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