West Nile Virus and Pregnancy: Are You at Risk?
Most of us look forward to the spring and summer months with excitement and hope. After all, spring and summer bring sunny days and warm weather, offering a much-needed reprieve from the long and challenging winters. However, it is important to recognize some of the dangers that the warm weather brings to pregnant women, including mosquito bites. Mosquitoes throughout the United States carry a disease known as the West Nile Virus, which can cause a number of unpleasant health symptoms. Additionally, recent studies indicate that West Nile virus may pose harm to your baby should you develop the disease during pregnancy.
What is West Nile Virus?
West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne virus that can be transmitted to humans, horses, and other mammals. It can cause symptoms of varying intensity in men and women who are infected with the disease. Though typically harmless, West Nile virus can cause a number of severe health problems in a small percentage of those who become infected. There is also new evidence to suggest that the virus may affect your growing fetus if you are infected during the first or second trimester. There is no treatment for West Nile virus. However, like chicken pox, once you have been infected, your body builds up a natural immunity to future infections.
West Nile virus is common in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia. In 1999, the virus made its first appearance in the United States, and it has since spread to all 48 continental states. Since 1999, there have been over 15,000 reported cases of West Nile virus in the United States, and more than 700 men and women have died from the disease.
How Do You Get West Nile Virus?
West Nile virus is primarily spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes. Mosquitoes contract the disease when they feed off of infected birds. The mosquitoes then pass this virus along when they bite humans. Though rare, the virus can also be spread through:
- infected blood transfusions
- infected organ donation
Whoï¿½s at Risk for West Nile Virus?
Anyone living in areas where there are infected mosquitoes is at risk of developing West Nile virus. However, your chances of developing serious symptoms from the disease is less than 1%. Certain factors do increase your risk of serious infection, including:
- being over the age of 50
- having a compromised immune system
- spending lots of time outdoors
Symptoms of the West Nile Virus
The vast majority of those who contract West Nile virus experience no symptoms of the infection. In fact, up to 80% of those infected with the disease are unaware of their infection. 20% of men and women infected with West Nile virus will develop mild to moderate symptoms, which may resemble the flu. Symptoms include:
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle aches and pains
- swollen lymph glands
- skin rash
Fewer than 1% of those infected with West Nile virus develop serious and even life-threatening symptoms of the disease, including:
- high fever
- stiff neck
- convulsions and tremors
Pregnancy and West Nile Virus
Recently, a study was completed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) regarding the effect of West Nile virus during pregnancy. Since 1999, 72 women have contracted West Nile virus while pregnant. The CDC analyzed these pregnancies in order to uncover any possible link between pregnancy complications and West Nile virus.
Between 7% and 10% of those babies born had severe birth defects, including cleft palate and Down Syndrome. Two babies were born with abnormally small heads while another was born with an extra toe. Developmental complications appeared to depend upon the time during which the West Nile Virus infection occured: when later on in pregnancy, such as during the third trimester, there were fewer associated problems. Inexplicably, the incidence of miscarriage and preterm labor seemed to be lower than normal amongst pregnant women with West Nile virus.
Though this study is too small to prove that West Nile Virus is a risk during pregnancy, the CDC does believe that the virus may be responsible for causing some birth defects in babies. The CDC therefore recommends that pregnant women take the appropriate steps to protect themselves against mosquito bites.
Preventing West Nile Virus
The best way to reduce your risk of getting West Nile virus is by taking preventative measures around mosquitoes in your area.
- Avoid going outside during the early morning or early evening, when mosquitoes are most active.
- Wear light-colored, long-sleeved clothing when outside. Always wear socks and shoes, particularly when walking in grassy or wooded areas. Wear a large-brimmed hat or mosquito netting to protect your head and face.
- Apply mosquito repellent to your clothes and exposed areas of skin when heading outside. Pregnant women should avoid using insect repellents that contain DEET. These repellents have been known to be highly toxic is large doses. Try to look for natural alternatives, including repellents with citronella oil or lemon eucalyptus.
- Reduce the number of mosquitoes in your area by getting rid of mosquito breeding grounds. Remove stagnant water in your yard: clean all bird baths and decorative ponds regularly; refill pet bowls at least once a day. If you have a pool, cover it when it is not in use.