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Before You Get Pregnant: What You Need to Know About the Zika Virus

If you’re thinking about getting pregnant, there are a lot of considerations. For most women in the United States, those considerations have to do with family, work, money and time. Recently, however, a new concern has appeared on the horizon: the Zika virus. That’s because women who contract the virus appear to be at risk of having babies with serious birth defects. So, if you’re ready to expand your family, what do you need to know?

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that has been implicated in birth defects, particularly microcephaly, in which an infant’s head does not develop completely.  The news media first focused on the disease in Brazil, but it has spread quickly throughout the Americas, and health departments in the southern states are preparing for its inevitable incursion into the U.S.  This country is home to a strain of mosquitoes that is known to transmit the virus.

Presently, there are over 200 pregnant women in the U.S. who have a documented Zika infection. Most of these cases resulted from travel to an affected country, and in others the virus was acquired through sexual contact. In May 2016, the first case of microcephaly linked to a Zika infection acquired in the United States was confirmed.  Here is what fertility doctors are telling their patients about Zika.

If you are a woman and have traveled to a country where Zika is prevelent, or if you have had sex with a man infected with the virus, wait at least eight weeks before you try to get pregnant, whether or not any symptoms are present. The Zika virus itself often presents with very few or no symptoms.

If you are a man and have possibly been exposed to Zika through travel, the amount of time you need to wait before attempting pregnancy varies. If you have had no symptoms of Zika, you only need to wait eight weeks from the date of exposure. But if you have had any symptoms, you should wait at least six months, as the virus remains in the semen much longer than it does in your blood.

Just testing for Zika upon return from travel to an affected area is not enough.  Diagnosis is done through a blood test, performed during the first week you have symptoms. Your physician should also do a urine test from a sample collected within two weeks of the onset of symptoms, as the two tests operate differently. Unfortunately, the tests are not completely reliable, and the results take a long time to develop.

What is the best way to handle Zika if you are trying to have a baby? Don’t travel to a country with Zika outbreaks. At this time, there are active outbreaks in most of South and Central America, in the Caribbean, and even as far away as Fiji. Doctors are also encouraging their patients to avoid Mexico. If you live in one of the southern states, particularly those bordering the Gulf of Mexico, take all precautions to avoid mosquito bites.

 If you have had difficulty conceiving, and particularly if you are older and time is critical, you may be reluctant to risk the automatic two-month delay and the possible six-month delay. So if the male partner must travel for business, doctors suggest freezing sperm before taking the trip.  If both partners are traveling, you will still have to wait two months, but if you have frozen sperm in advance, you will know you won’t have to wait six months.