Earlier this year, the international media erupted with reports of a worldwide outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. First found primarily in South America, the virus has since been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization, with confirmed cases in more than 35 countries, with 17 in Maryland as of press time.
Zika’s growing prevalence has sparked conversation about disease prevention, particularly among women. While Zika disease is minor for most, causing only fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis, the virus can have devastating effects on pregnant women. Infection may cause birth defects such as hearing loss, impaired growth and most significantly microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s brain does not develop correctly, causing his or her head to be smaller than normal.
“What the Centers for Disease Control is predicting is that as people start traveling more in the summertime, the virus might become more prevalent in the United States,” said Dr. Alison Falck of the University of Maryland Medical System. “The main recommendation at this point is to avoid travel if you are considering becoming pregnant.”
It should also be noted that Zika can also be sexually transmitted, but it is as yet indeterminate whether the virus can be passed from contact, such as the common cold.
For some local moms, fear of infection has been an unexpected consideration.
“I’m not worried about my son [contracting the virus],” said Mollie Churchill, whose child, Zeke, is a year and a half. “But how it could play out in any subsequent pregnancies is certainly a question for me. I’m not pregnant right now, but I do have concerns. If I was planning to become pregnant, for example, I’d probably be more conscious of using insect repellant and wearing long sleeves and pants, as well as be more careful where I’m sitting outside.”
For others, the Zika scare brings back memories of other concerns during pregnancy.
Some of the diseases that had been abolished are coming back because people aren’t being vaccinated. We ask that people really understand the risks before making the decision not to vaccinate their children.” —Dr. Alison Falck, University of Maryland Medical System
“I wasn’t worried about Zika because it hadn’t been an issue then, but I was really nervous about chicken pox,” said Mandee Heinl, mother of two toddlers. “Because it’s a disease that a baby can contract in-utero, they test you while you’re pregnant to see if you’re immune — and I wasn’t. I was really nuts about it.”
In fact, there are all sorts of infections a fetus can contract during pregnancy. According to Dr. Falck, infections like cytomegalovirus (CMV) are virtually everywhere in our environment — though there’s no need to panic.
“The best way to look out for these infections is to make sure you have great prenatal care and surveillance,” said Dr. Falck. “CMV, for example, can be detected if the baby isn’t growing very well.”
Dr. Carla Weisman of LifeBridge Health concurred, adding that prenatal testing is incredibly important, particularly for members of the Jewish community. Though actual prevention is often impossible, as with genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs and the ‘Jewish Panel,’ evaluation and testing even before pregnancy can be very effective.
“Screening for genetic diseases can avoid unnecessary risk,” she said. “If you are a carrier, your partner can be tested, and we can refer you to a genetic specialist if need be. Regular visits to make sure weight, alcohol intake, blood pressure and other factors are in control before conception can also make a considerable difference.”
Of course, mothers-to-be take their own precautions during pregnancy, too. Both Churchill and Heinl were sure to take prenatal vitamins, stay active and be aware of the effects of certain foods — though Heinl admitted to loosening her strict regime during her second pregnancy.
What the Centers for Disease Control is predicting is that as people start traveling more in the summertime, the virus might become more prevalent in the United States.” — Dr. Alison Falck, University of Maryland Medical System
“With my first, I didn’t eat lunch meat because I heard there could be bacteria, but with the second pregnancy I had no problem with it. I wasn’t going to go get a turkey sandwich from a gas station, but I definitely relaxed.”
As for keeping kids safe post-pregnancy, the doctors assured that it was largely common sense — washing hands and surfaces frequently, keeping children away from those with evident illness or infection and avoiding crowds for the first few weeks while the infant’s immune system is weak.
Dr. Falck stressed, too, the importance of following the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for vaccinations.
“Some of the diseases that had been abolished are coming back because people aren’t being vaccinated,” she said. “We ask that people really understand the risks before making the decision not to vaccinate their children.”
Otherwise, the health of both parents and their children is a matter of simply doing one’s best.
As Heinl said, “sometimes illness is unavoidable, but we try to live as healthily and cleanly as we can.”