The Zika virus continues to cause substantial concern among health care professionals across the globe, and as we get further into the summer — and closer to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — that concern is escalating.

While a great deal is still unknown about the virus and its effects, the danger it poses to pregnant women and their fetuses has been widely documented. The severity of its impact on fetuses has even prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning for women in certain countries to avoid becoming pregnant for the time being.

“It’s quite worrisome. Though the likelihood of contracting the virus in Nevada is minimal at this point, we still need to be careful,” said John Nowins, MD, OB/GYN at Sunrise Children’s Hospital. Here is what you need to know about the virus and what you can do to avoid contracting it.

What is it?

The Zika virus is a disease-causing virus spread primarily through the bite of a certain species of infected mosquito called an Aedes mosquito. It can also be spread through sexual contact and during pregnancy or delivery.

The symptoms of Zika for most people are relatively mild and similar to that of a cold and/or flu; the most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.

However, for some the effects can be far worse. “Zika can cause very serious neurological disorders. Microcephaly in infants is one major one, and Guillain-Barré syndrome is another,” Nowins said. Beyond identifying Zika as the cause for both of these disorders, there isn’t much information yet about how it causes them, or the likelihood that it will cause them.

Zika can affect anyone

Zika can cause serious, even debilitating, complications for anyone, not just pregnant women. It has recently been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome. This condition is known as an ascending paralysis that causes muscle weakness and the inability to move. “The cause of Guillain-Barré has always been unknown. Now that Zika has been identified as one cause, it’s possible that it’s been the primary cause the entire time,” said Nowins.

As research on Zika continues, it may be linked to other diseases and could unlock treatment/prevention pathways that were unavailable.

Zika can cause microcephaly in babies

Microcephaly is a birth defect that causes a baby’s head to be significantly smaller than average, usually resulting in a smaller, underdeveloped brain. Microcephaly can cause many problems for the infant depending on the degree of severity.

Some infants may experience no further problems beyond a small head, others may be severely disabled for the rest of their lives, and some may not survive at all. Microcephaly commonly causes the following:

  • Intellectual and/or developmental disorders
  • Developmental delays
  • Seizures
  • Feeding problems
  • Problems with movement/balance/motor skills
  • Vision problems

Are there other causes?

Microcephaly is a rare birth defect and can occur for a number of reasons besides Zika. It can be caused by a genetic anomaly, certain infections during pregnancy (such as rubella), severe malnutrition, or exposure to harmful substances (such as drugs, alcohol or other toxins). It can usually be diagnosed during pregnancy, but not until the later stages of the second or third trimester. “Microcephaly can be very difficult to diagnose in the early stages of pregnancy, and can usually only be detected through an ultrasound during the late stages of the second trimester and into the third trimester,” said Nowins. Some cases may not be diagnosed until after the baby is born.

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