Zika update: 1 in 10 infected women in U.S. have babies with birth defects

A US study reveals that about 10 percent of US women who contracted Zika while pregnant had babies or fetuses with deformities related to the virus.

Pregnant woman staring off into the distance
Photo: iStockphoto

Alarming headlines have been circulating about Zika for more than a year now. But beyond the confirmation that the mosquito-spread virus can cause unborn babies to develop brain damage and microcephaly—a condition in which an infant’s head is much smaller than expected—there hasn’t been much information about how common Zika-related complications are for pregnant women and their babies. Now, a new study is reporting that one in 10 women in the United States who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant had deformities, including microcephaly, in their babies or fetuses.

The study, which was conducted by researchers with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that out of 250 women in America who had definitive Zika diagnoses, 24 of their infants suffered birth defects because of the virus. These women were tracked in a larger pool of almost 1,000 pregnant women who had some signs of Zika. Because Zika testing is only valid within the first few weeks of contracting the illness, definitive stats couldn’t be taken from this larger group, though about five percent of infants and fetuses from those 1,000 women had Zika-related defects.

Questions still remain around when fetuses are most vulnerable, but this study suggests the risk might be higher while women are in the first trimester of pregnancy. Among women who contracted Zika during that period, defects appeared in 15 percent of babies.

Defects caused by Zika can include everything from microcephaly and craniofacial disproportion to seizures and vision problems. And, since some defects and developmental delays can take a while to appear, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that there may be even more infants affected whose symptoms haven’t yet appeared.

It’s all pretty scary stuff for a mom-to-be. The good news is, there’s a lot you can do to keep yourself and your baby safe. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends women avoid travel to Zika-affected areas, which currently includes 84 countries, with Brazil, Barbados, Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina and Jamaica among them. There have also been reports of the Zika virus being transmitted locally in Florida and Texas, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have concerns that the affected areas could continue to grow as the weather warms up. And because Zika survives for prolonged periods in semen and can be transmitted sexually, even having a partner who travels to these areas can put you at risk. If you suspect you’ve contracted Zika, experts recommend waiting at least two months before trying to conceive, and the CDC suggests men wait six months before having unprotected sex. 

If you’re currently expecting or trying to have a baby in the next few months, consider making your summer vacay a staycation. There are currently no reports of Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Canada, though 500 Canadians who have contracted the virus while travelling, and three who have got it through sexual transmission. Among those, 28 were pregnant women. So far, only two have shown signs of Zika-related defects, but the US numbers provide an indication of how many babies might be affected.

Read more:
How the Zika virus is changing family travel plans
CMV: This virus is more common than Zika, but no one talks about it
First baby born in Canada with Zika-related birth defects

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