This year the theme of National Birth Defects Prevention Month is Prevent to Protect. This week we will be posting a series of guest posts from MotherToBaby’s Kirstie Perrotta, MPH, Lorrie Harris-Sagaribay, MPH, Robert Felix and Susan Sherman of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) Zika Task Force. Each day they will respond to one of the top five questions they receive about preventable infectious diseases and what you can do to prevent exposure during pregnancy.
“It’s 2018! I didn’t even know you could get syphilis nowadays!” Yes, I mentioned the stats about syphilis and other infections that can affect pregnancy to the caller who had contacted me through our free MotherToBaby helpline. I thought, this is a great time to educate her as well as others about a variety of infections. Some infections, like Zika, seem to make headlines every week, while others tend to be discussed much less frequently. January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, and this year’s focus is on infection prevention.
One of our most common Zika questions comes from couples who have just returned home after a tropical vacation: How long do we need to wait to get pregnant after returning from a country with Zika, and what should we do in the meantime to minimize risk? Can we be tested?
Many countries continue to see active transmission of Zika virus from infected mosquitoes. If a woman is infected with Zika during pregnancy, it can increase the risk of microcephaly (small head and brain) and other severe brain defects. It may also cause eye defects, hearing loss, seizures, and problems with the joints and limb movement. That’s why it’s so important for couples who are planning a pregnancy to make sure the virus is completely out of their bodies before they attempt to conceive.
So, how long do couples need to wait? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women who travel to a country with Zika wait at least two months before attempting to get pregnant. If a male partner travels, the CDC recommends waiting six months. Some callers ask, “Why so long? We’re ready to get pregnant now!” Although the virus is expected to leave most people’s blood in about two weeks, this could vary depending on a number of factors including their own immunity. The CDC considers 2 months to be a long enough wait time for women. As for men? Zika has been found in the semen for up to 6 months after a man is first infected. The six-month wait time ensures that men do not pass the virus to their partners during intercourse if it is still present in their semen.
Practicing safe sex is important during these wait times! Since Zika can spread through sexual contact, using condoms or dental dams is recommended every time a couple has intercourse. Don’t want to use protection? 100% abstinence is another option. These safe sex precautions significantly reduce the risk of transferring the virus from one partner to another during these important wait times.
Couples who want to get pregnant right away will often ask, “Instead of waiting, isn’t there a way my doctor can just test me for the virus?” Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not so simple. The CDC does not recommend testing as a way to know if it’s “safe” to get pregnant. For one reason, the virus could have already left your blood, but could still be hanging out in other areas of the body (like semen). In this case, you could get a negative blood test result, but still have the virus. Second, no test is 100% accurate. There’s always a chance that your result could be a false negative, especially if you are tested too soon or too late after returning home from a country with Zika.
So, the bottom line? It’s a waiting game. Couples should follow the CDC’s official recommendations to make sure their pregnancy has the healthiest start possible. Still have questions or concerns about Zika? Check out Zika Central on MotherToBaby.org or call us at 866-626-6847 to speak with a specialist who can assess your specific exposure.
Other posts in the series:
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets.