I have permanent scars on my feet from mosquito bites I acquired while I was pregnant with Collin in the summer of 2009. I don’t know if it’s my fair skin, my AB- blood, or my vegan diet that make me such a delicacy for mosquitos, but when I’m pregnant and my blood volume is drastically increased, I find my extremities covered in itchy red bumps.
Naturally, when I first heard about the recent epidemic of Zika virus in Central and South America, I panicked. Zika virus is a common occurrence in several African countries, to the point that the virus is considered “endemic,” and people are more or less used to it. Central and South America, on the other hand, are facing a sudden epidemic with possible links to an alarming increase in birth defects in pregnant women bitten by Zika-infected mosquitos. Though most infected people suffer few if any symptoms, babies born to infected mothers are demonstrating a trend of birth defects, most significantly microcephaly, or extremely small heads. Many of the affected babies are dying and those who manage to survive face a difficult life of profound developmental disabilities.
On Wednesday January 27th, a high school classmate and current University of Maryland professor, Dr. Jennifer German posted the following message on her Facebook page: “Family and friends, before you commence with the panicking about Zika virus, please remember that you have access to a virologist that studied Flaviviruses (the family of which Zika is a member) for her dissertation and is happy to answer questions. That is all.” And the questions poured in.
Dr. Jennifer German
Dr. German reassured her friends that the virus isn’t severe for the average person and that scientists aren’t yet 100% sure of a link between Zika virus and the rise in microcephaly cases. She explained that a vaccine is being developed, but that it could take several years.
After gathering more information from Dr. German’s responses, I was feeling better, especially since the two feet of snow covering my back yard reminded me that mosquito bites were two seasons away. Besides, I’m not planning on visiting any of the afflicted regions any time soon. Still, I had my concerns, which Dr. German promptly addressed.
My first question: Is the birth defect likely to develop later in pregnancy?
Being due early in July, I knew those pesky bloodsuckers wouldn’t be making an appearance until the tail end of my pregnancy, but I was still concerned that a late bite would have an effect on my baby. Dr. German explained that the virus would most likely pose a threat in the first trimester and, to a lesser extent, in the second trimester. Towards the end, the baby is “mostly developed and getting fat and happy,” and brain development is unlikely to be affected by Zika virus.
I also wanted to know what I could do to prevent infection. Dr. German suggested I apply lemon eucalyptus oil, avoid going outside at dusk, and wear long sleeves and pants, if possible. A friend suggested to have a fan blowing because mosquitos have weak wings and wouldn’t be able to tolerate the fast moving air.
Even in the rare case that I did contract something, I reminded myself that unlike many of the women in the countries most affected by Zika virus, I am blessed to have access to excellent prenatal care, with frequent doctors’ visits, close monitoring with sonograms and heart monitors, and less than an hour’s drive to some of the best hospitals in the world.
Still, I can’t help but feel heartbroken for the women who are losing their babies to this epidemic, which may or may not be tied to the Zika virus. Additionally, I’m saddened to hear that in several countries women are being told not to get pregnant for at least two years. I pray that a solution comes soon for healthier mothers and babies everywhere.