How to Understand the Zika Virus Impact on Pregnancy

This article is part of a video series with Dr. Changa Kurukularatne, a specialist in infectious diseases and internal medicine; he is a father of four. Dr. Changa has worked in multiple countries from the U.S. to New Zealand and Singapore.

Dr. Linnea: Talking about blurred lines, I feel that, especially given your background in infectious diseases, would be really interesting to know a bit more what you think about the whole Zika virus alert that we’ve had for a few years now because there’s a lot of concern still going around. And we see celebrities visiting parts of the world covering themselves because of the Zika virus. So, can you tell us a little bit on that?

Dr. Changa: Yes, I’m happy to. And so, Zika virus is transmitted by the same mosquito that transmits Dengue fever. So in many ways, it’s a virus that’s similar to Dengue fever, to the Dengue virus. Most of the time these infections don’t have any symptoms, and we see that in Dengue as well. The infections can asymptomatic, without symptoms. And Zika tends to be milder in this than Dengue. But the obvious concern surrounding Zika is the birth defects and that’s what’s been highlighted, specifically microcephaly where the babies are born with a smaller head.

There are official statements from entities such as the U.S. CDC that Zika causes microcephaly, and if you’re planning to have a family, then do what you can to avoid getting infected with Zika. And I think that’s a good recommendation because if you have the ability and the luxury to avoid a risk, why not avoid that risk? So that’s good practice.

Again, speaking about this from a real-life situation, where many people on this planet live in areas that are prone to Dengue virus, which essentially are tropics, and those populations would also be susceptible to Zika virus infections. A lot of the time there’s practically not much you can do except mosquito control measures, both on a personal level and a community level. So, that may include the…what complicates the issue a little bit further is that these are daytime-biting mosquitoes. There are some other illnesses like Japanese encephalitis and certain other illnesses that are transmitted through the nighttime mosquitoes.

But what you can do to avoid exposure to Zika is…mosquito prevention is very important. Whether you spend a holiday or travel to a Zika-endemic area becomes a very personal decision. It all boils down to our own perception of risk. If you want to avoid the risk then people don’t travel. But there are certain people who travel to Zika areas because the benefits of travel and the benefits of exploring areas that they haven’t seen yet in their risk matrix increase the chance of getting Zika virus is something that is happening. So, the issue of risk becomes a very, very personal decision.

With the issue of microcephaly, we saw that in Brazil where the link was made, where moms infected with the Zika virus, their babies had these birth defects, which is what prompted the regulatory authorities to issue this statement linking Zika virus with microcephaly. And there are some unanswered questions where in Colombia, for instance, there was a big outbreak of Zika virus but we didn’t see the amount of microcephaly that we saw in Brazil. So, there are some variations of this that, perhaps, haven’t been fully explained, but Zika is a virus that in the laboratory setting does infect nerve tissue.

So the theory does have a scientific basis but at the same time, there are some other unanswered questions epidemiologically, “Well, if it happened here then why didn’t it happen here?” So, I think a lot of research, ongoing research is needed to really answer these questions that do come up. And whether or not a family traveling, how they incorporate the risk of Zika into the equation is, I think, a very, very personal choice.

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Written by Dr. Linnea Passaler

A surgeon and mom of a three, all currently under the age of five, Dr. Linnea is MamaDoctor's founder. She believes healthy virtual spaces where people can share their honest concerns and get help from knowledgeable, trustworthy sources, change lives for the better. She is an advocate for maternal mental health and wellbeing.