The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave pregnant women something to add to their list of worries last week, when they issued a travel warning about Zika virus to pregnant women. Zika virus, which is transmitted via infected mosquitos, has been linked to microcephaly in babies, a serious neurological disorder where the head is abnormally small. The condition results in serious developmental problems and even death, according to CNN.
"Out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women (are) advised to consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing," the CDC alert advised this week. The alert specified 14 countries or territories throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
According to the CDC, all of these countries have seen local transmission of Zika, which means mosquitoes within the country have transmitted the virus, as opposed to a citizen of the country contracting it while traveling. The good news — that is, if there's any good news here — is that the illness caused by Zika virus is relatively mild, according to The New York Times. Symptoms include fever, rash, and joint pain, according to The Washington Post, and four out of five of those infected experience no symptoms at all.
The real concern, then, is how the virus affects babies in utero. The precise relationship between Zika virus and microcephaly is still unclear, according to the CDC, but for now, pregnant women are advised to avoid travel to these areas in particular:
The heartbreaking connection between Zika and microcephaly was first established in Brazil, so Brazil is by far the most important country on the CDC's list. According to NPR, there were 3,000 cases of microcephaly in Brazil last year, an exponential increase from a previous rate of just 200 cases. And the numbers seem to be climbing. According to the CDC, Brazilian health authorities have reported 3,500 cases since October 2015.
This increase in microcephaly corresponded with a surge of Zika virus, which was introduced to Brazil in 2014, possibly in connection with the World Cup. Since that time, at least half a million people in Brazil have been infected with Zika, according to CNN. Autopsies of Brazilian babies who died from microcephaly confirmed the presence of Zika, thus establishing a connection. However, the precise nature of the connection is still under investigation.
The hardest-hit region is northeastern Brazil, where health officials have warned women to consider delaying pregnancy, according to a report by The New York Times.
For U.S. travelers, one of the more worrisome countries on the CDC's list is Mexico, not only because it's closest geographically, but because it's such a popular vacation spot. For pregnant women, that February sojourn to Cancun might be eligible for cancellation. Really puts a premium on travler's insurance, no?
Before calling the airlines to cancel, though, pregnant women -- or those who are trying to get pregnant -- should keep in mind that the CDC's announcement is an advisory. It's not like travel has been all-out banned. Specifically, the warning says:
Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor or other healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.
The warning also advises women who are trying to get pregnant to speak with their doctors before traveling to the relevant countries. So if you don't cancel your trip, you should, at the very least, pack lots of mosquito repellant.
Puerto Rico is another popular vacation spot on the CDC's list. There has only been one confirmed case of local transmission so far, but since Zika is usually asymptomatic and testing isn't widespread, there's probably many more cases, according to The New York Times. Dr. Erin Staples, a CDC epidemiologist, told the Times that an outbreak of Zika in Puerto Rico, followed by cases in Florida and other Gulf Coast states, will be a likely scenario come spring.
The CDC advises all travelers to the Caribbean and Latin America -- pregnant or no -- to exercise caution by wearing long-sleeved clothing, EPA-registered insect repellant, and permethrin-treated clothing. Additionally, it's advisable to sleep indoors, in air-conditioned rooms.
Parts Of Central And South America
Brazil, Mexico, and Puerto Rico are the top vacation spots on the list, but the other countries in Central and South America -- Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, and Venezuela -- certainly see their fair share of U.S. travelers, too.
Indeed, the first confirmed case of Zika in the mainland U.S. was reported just last week in a Houston woman returning from El Salvador. According to The Guardian, the middle-aged Texan was diagnosed with Zika after she experienced a fever, rash, and joint pain.
While this all seems rather scary, the precise connection between Zika and microcephaly remains frustratingly obscure. As stated in the CDC's travel warning:
The full spectrum of outcomes that might be associated with infection during pregnancy and the factors that might increase risk to the fetus are not yet fully understood. Health authorities in Brazil, with assistance from the Pan American Health Organization, CDC, and other agencies, have been investigating the possible association between Zika virus infection and microcephaly in infants. However, additional studies are needed to further characterize this relationship. More studies are planned to learn more about the risks of Zika virus infection during pregnancy.
For now, then, pregnant women will need to consult with their doctors, and decide what's best for themselves. And if a vacation to Mexico gets cancelled, there's always Miami, right?
(Then again... maybe not.)