Last fall, my husband and I were discussing the possibility of a last-minute family vacation to Walt Disney World. I was pregnant with our second child, so we thought it would be the perfect time to treat our three year-old, Matilda, to her first Disney experience, before her baby sister arrived. We could have one last hurrah before our family of three became four. Then we heard about the Zika virus landing in Florida.
Zika is a viral infection spread primarily through mosquito bites (though it can also be sexually transmitted, mainly through infected male partners). In very rare cases, Zika can cause unusual neurological complications, but more common symptoms include headaches, fever, pink eye and skin rashes, along with muscle and joint pain. These symptoms appear within three to 14 days, are typically mild and only last a few days—if they show up at all. In fact, about three-quarters of kids and adults who are infected are totally asymptomatic and never even know they’re sick. But if you’re a mom-to-be or someone—man or woman—who plans to have a baby in the near future, the virus can be very serious.
During pregnancy—and prior to conception—the Zika virus can cause serious problems in a developing fetus, including microcephaly (a very small head) and other brain malformations, explains Shaun Morris, a doctor and research scientist who specializes in paediatrics and infectious diseases at the SickKids Family Travel Clinic in Toronto. A neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome is another scary side effect that has been appearing in babies born with the virus. As a result, all pregnant women are advised to follow up with their doctors and be tested for the Zika virus after they get home from known transmission areas, even if they aren’t showing symptoms. (Testing is done via blood and urine samples.) Some expectant moms who are infected with Zika will deliver babies with no health problems, but researchers don’t know why.
What if you’re not pregnant now, but planning to get pregnant in the near future? The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) has now issued an official warning to both “soon to be pregnant” and pregnant women, urging them to “consider avoiding or delaying travel to areas with reported mosquito-borne Zika virus.”
Both the SOGC and the Public Health Agency of Canada recommend that women wait at least two months after returning from regions that are known to have Zika-infected mosquitoes before trying to conceive. Dads-to-be are advised to wait even longer—six months after leaving Zika-affected areas—because the virus can persist in semen for an extended period of time. And, says the SOGC, men who have travelled to a country with Zika should use condoms for six months post-travel or avoid having sex altogether for the duration of their partner’s pregnancy. (So much for the joys of contraception-free pregnancy sex!)
There are currently no standard, across-the-board testing recommendations for couples who aren’t displaying symptoms but who want to be cleared of Zika before trying to conceive. Testing is determined on a case-by-case basis by each woman’s doctor.
Liz Davis*, a mom of one, says that she and her husband decided to skip an annual family trip to Mexico this year, just to be cautious. “I’m not pregnant, but we’re thinking about having a second baby sometime in the next couple of years and my doctor recommended that we avoid anywhere that has a possibility of Zika for now,” she says. “He said we could go if we’re willing to wait four or five years to conceive again, but not if we want to get pregnant within the next two years.” Davis’s family members—unaware that men carry Zika in their bodies for far longer than women—thought their decision was extreme. “But there’s a lot we don’t know yet,” says Davis. “We are lucky to have the choice of whether to risk it or to simply stay home—not everyone does.”
If you must travel to areas affected by Zika, protect yourself from mosquito bites by wearing long sleeves, pants and closed shoes and using an insect repellent that contains DEET or Icaridin (both are safe for pregnant women and children to use as long as you follow the instructions, says Morris). To limit your exposure to the bugs, book accommodations that are fully screened-in and/or air-conditioned.
Morris recommends seeking medical advice before making any tropical vacation plans. “It’s important that couples who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant speak with their healthcare providers or travel-medicine specialists at least six to eight weeks before travelling to get up-to-date and accurate information,” he says. “This allows for an assessment of risk and informed decision-making.”
Before you book a trip to a popular warm-weather destination, make sure to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s web site for a growing list of countries that have reported Zika transmissions and the Public Health Agency of Canada, for up-to-date travel advisories.
“We have not seen a significant impact on southbound Canadian travel as of yet,” says Ann Layton, founder and CEO of Siren Communications, the largest travel and tourism company in the country. “The only cancellations we’ve seen are women who are currently pregnant or hoping to become pregnant in the next few months—this is a very small percentage of the travelling public.” She suggests less-obvious choices for babymoons and sunny family vacations this winter, such as Las Vegas, the Canary Islands and southern European countries.
Because of the Zika cases reported in South Florida, we ultimately decided that Disney World was definitely on hold for us. Matilda will just have to wait a little longer to meet Mickey Mouse.
*Name has been changed.
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