On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. issued a Level 2 travel warning for pregnant women who plan on traveling to areas of Central and South America along with regions of the Caribbean.
The regions covered under the travel warning where there is ongoing Zika virus transmission are: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
At present there appears to be an outbreak of Zika virus, which can cause miscarriages in women and microcephaly in full term babies who are exposed prior to birth. The Zika virus only poses a true danger to the unborn babies while in the vast majority of others it causes a minor illness.
Zika virus is carried and transmitted by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which is common to the areas under the alert, hence the warning. A Level 2 travel alert means those individuals at risk should take enhanced precautions, which in this case it is suggested by the CDC that women who are or may be pregnant not travel to the areas.
In a hastily called briefing by the CDC on Friday evening, Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of CDC’s division of vector borne disease discussed the outbreak and the steps the CDC are taking to confirm the dangers posed.
“About one in five people infected with Zika virus will develop the most common symptoms of Zika, including fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis or red eyes”, Dr. Petersen said. “The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.”
According to Dr. Petersen, Zika outbreaks have occurred in areas of Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa and the Americas. With the virus being carried by the Aedes species f mosquitoes which can be found in many areas of the world, it is expected that cases of Zika will continue to spread in new locations.
Referencing the most recent outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil, Dr. Petersen spoke to the reason for the travel alert issued by the agency.
“(Brazilian) officials there have noted a rather significant increase in cases of microcephaly, which means smaller than expected head size in infants”, Dr. Petersen said. “Many are pointing to an association between that and Zika virus infection. According to Brazilian health authorities, more than 3,500 microcephaly cases were reported in Brazil between October 2015 and January 2016”.
To further the determination that Zika could be at the center of the increase in microcephaly and miscarriages in Brazil, the CDC has tested tissues from two incomplete pregnancies and from the brain tissue of two children born with microcephaly but who did not survive. In all four cases, lab tests showed that the infants had contracted Zika during the pregnancy. Genetic testing on the virus found confirmed it is of the same Zika genotype as that currently involved in the outbreak in Brazil.
Adding to this is the fact that all the mothers reported that during their pregnancies they had experienced an illness with rash and fever, consistent with the symptoms of Zika.
Though the CDC cannot at this time say with absolute certainty that it is only the Zika virus to blame, Dr. Petersen said the agency felt it important to issue the warning as soon as possible.
“… because of this growing risk of or growing evidence that there’s a link between Zika virus and microcephaly, which is a very severe and devastating outcome, it was important to warn people as soon as possible”, Dr. Petersen added.
He added the following suggestions for women planning on travel to the area.
Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.
Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during their trip.
Women of child bearing age who are thinking about becoming pregnant should consult with their health care provider before travel to these areas and follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip.
It is also recommended that anyone traveling to the areas covered under the travel alert take steps to protect themselves from mosquito bites. In addition to Zika virus, the same mosquito can carry and spread illnesses such as Dengue and chikungunya.
Recommendations include using mosquito repellent, wearing long sleeved shirts and long pants if possible. More information is available on the CDC website regarding protection against mosquito bites.
Dr. Petersen said testing will continue and that the agency will be working closely with local authorities in the regions affected along with the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization .
More information on Zika virus is available at the CDC Zika webpage, the . For information on protection from biting insects the CDC has a comprehensive section on the subject.