For pregnant women, contracting the Zika virus is a scary prospect. Mothers who have contracted Zika pass the virus onto fetuses in the womb, where the virus can cause serious damage to developing brains, often causing microcephaly and other severe neurological disorders. However, what happens after a healthy baby is born? Aside from keeping your infants indoors and protected from mosquitoes, should parents be worried? Can the virus be transmitted through breastfeeding, and should mothers formula feed because of Zika's threat?
Since Zika research is still in its infancy — despite scientists' current race to catch up — there are still a lot of unknowns involved, but luckily, early findings have looked at breastfeeding and Zika. Scientists have confirmed that the virus can be spread through semen, and researchers seem undecided on whether Zika can be transmitted through saliva. According to the World Health Organization, Zika virus RNA has been detected in breast milk, but no replicative virus was found in it (without replication, a virus can't infect a host, meaning the virus is likely latent and harmless in breast milk).
While the WHO stresses that more research is needed in the area, mothers can also be reassured by the fact that, so far, there haven't been any reports of infants contracting Zika through breastfeeding.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, breastfeeding can help protect your baby from asthma, respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome, and childhood leukemia and obesity. Research has shown that the longer women breastfeed, the better, and the WHO recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for at least six months.
If somehow infants do contract Zika from breast milk — or even if they contract it the tried and true way, via mosquito bite — there's no need for parents to panic, either. If infants contract Zika after they're born, the risk of harm is much lower than when they're in utero, since it generally affects them the same way it does adults. In other words, most of them won't have any symptoms whatsoever, and if they do, it's likely to present in the form of a rash, fever, and joint pain. While nobody wants that for their child, it's by far the lesser evil to microcephaly and other neurological symptoms.
For now, the benefits of breastfeeding your infant are definitely there, and no evidence has presented itself to discourage breastfeeding due to Zika. If you're in an affected area, don't worry: there's no need to switch to formula just yet.