Zika — a virus mostly spread by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is a pressing concern for many pregnant people. But new research suggests another mosquito virus called Rift Valley fever could be more detrimental to expectant parents than Zika, as The New York Times reported on Monday. If you've never heard of this virus before, here's everything you need to know about Rift Valley fever.
Research published in Science Advances on Dec. 5, 2018 found that Rift Valley fever can cause miscarriages and lead to "severe congenital abnormalities" in fetuses if contracted by expectant parents. Although Rift Valley fever is not a new virus (it was first reported in 1910, according to the CDC), its potential harm in relation to pregnancy hasn't been thoroughly investigated until now.
Prior to the study, discussions about Rift Valley fever were mostly limited to livestock. "Rift Valley fever (RVF) is an acute, fever-causing viral disease most commonly observed in domesticated animals (such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels), with the ability to infect and cause illness in humans," the CDC's website states.
In the "first study" of its kind, researchers looked at how the virus attacks the placenta in an effort to understand the "potential impact of a future epidemic of this emerging mosquito-borne virus," according to Science Advances.
Unfortunately, what scientists discovered is troubling. Rift Valley fever "has a unique ability to infect a specialized layer of cells that supports the region of the placenta where nutrients flow in," as The New York Times reported, unlike Zika which "must take the 'side roads' into the placenta to infect a fetus."
The researchers used infected pregnant rats to demonstrate the dangers of Rift Valley fever, finding that "65 percent of the pups born to infected mothers died, compared to 25 percent of pups born from uninfected controls," as The New York Times reported.
Additionally, the pregnant rats who survived the initial infection of Rift Valley Fever "all gave birth to at least one pup that died either due to infection or consumption on the days following delivery," according to Science Advances.
But arguably the most concerning finding? Researchers found that "infected mothers’ placentas harbored more virus than any other tissue in the body — more than even the liver, where the virus’s damage is typically observed," as The New York Times reported.
This study is incredibly important because there are no vaccines or treatments for Rift Valley fever at this time, according to the CDC. Knowing that Rift Vally fever could have dire consequences for pregnant women will hopefully change the notion that it's just a livestock virus.
In the meantime, you can protect yourself by limiting travel to high-risk areas for Rift Valley fever, like countries in Africa. It's recommended that you "cover exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats," and "use an appropriate insect repellent as directed," if you are traveling to a high-risk area, according to the CDC.
You can also speak with your doctor about any concerns you might have, and monitor the CDC's current outbreak list prior to travel.
Although this information about Rift Valley fever is understandably frightening, the best thing parents can do at the moment is to stay informed.