Earlier this year, my roommate and I began making plans to travel to Mexico for a friend’s wedding. I had never been to Mexico before and have wanted to go for years, so the thought of traveling there with one of my best friend’s was like a dream come true. That was before the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a global health emergency back in February. Since then, the effects of the virus, which is primarily spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, have become a global nightmare.
Not only does it lead to common symptoms like fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, but it’s especially concerning for pregnant women. The CDC has found associations with Zika, miscarriages, and microcephaly, a birth defect that leads to babies being born with underdeveloped brains. It’s frightening to say the least, so much so that the CDC has urged women who are pregnant to avoid traveling to countries with large Zika outbreaks, including Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic, among many more.
Women who aren’t pregnant but plan on getting pregnant and are traveling to Zika affected countries are recommended to wait at least eight weeks after returning from their trip before trying to get pregnant. The same applies if you happen to contract the virus.
With all the uncertainty surrounding this virus, I can’t help but wonder if I should be worried about catching Zika during my trip to Mexico despite the fact that I’m not pregnant and not planning on getting pregnant for years. According to double-board certified OB-GYN physician Dr. Kecia Gaither, I should be.
“There’s so much that still isn’t known about Zika,” says Gaither. “For instance, in men Zika can remain within the urinal/genital system longer. Even though it’s cleared from the blood, there have been cases where it’s still found in the sperm. We still don’t know how long this virus actually stays in your system.”
While some might feel like we’re blowing Zika out of proportion, there is still a lot that’s unknown. There could be larger consequences to contracting Zika than we can imagine, even for women like myself who are of reproductive age and eventually want to get pregnant. We still don’t know.
The Zika virus has spread throughout the world in numerous countries throughout the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and the Pacific Islands. A week ago the CDC confirmed that over 157 pregnant women in the United States were infected with the Zika virus. That was in addition to the more than 122 women who have been infected with Zika in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.
Another thing to keep in mind is that though Zika is primarily spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, it isn’t the only way you can contract the virus. It can be transmitted sexually or through a blood transfusion.
“The first thing you have to understand about Zika is the amount of knowledge that is presently available is fairly limited and it’s developing as time goes on,” says Dr. Michael H. Jacobs, the medical director at Fertility IVF Center of Miami. “The biggest question mark from a fertility practice’s standpoint is how long can the Zika virus system stay in one’s system? Because I’m not just dealing with patients that are pregnant, I’m dealing primarily with patients who are trying to get pregnant. We don’t really know, but they have found that it can live longer in seminal fluids.” Dr. Jacobs emphasizes the importance of practicing safe sex, especially when traveling to countries with Zika, by using condoms or other contraception barriers to prevent possible transmission.
But here’s the issue: You can have Zika and not even know it.“Eighty percent of people who have Zika don’t experience symptoms, so they don’t even know they have it,” says Dr. Jacobs. When I asked Dr. Gaither why none of my friends or family in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic know of anyone with the Zika virus, despite the staggering statistics that have been released, she said the following: “It’s very possible that a lot of people in those areas don’t even know they have Zika. They most likely aren’t experiencing any symptoms. It’s a self-limiting disease and most of the time it’s asymptomatic.”
And to make matters worse, testing for the virus is even more of a disaster. “There is a test but it’s very convoluted,” says Dr. Gaither. For starters, it’s not the kind of test you can get at your local physician’s office. “You either have to go to a CDC laboratory or a state and regional health department,” adds Dr. Gaither. “Mind you, there are hundreds of thousands of blood tests that are backed up because there is no commercially available tests as of right now.”
Even the testing itself is unclear. According to the CDC there are three kinds of tests you can have done to test for Zika: A reverse transcriptase preliminary chain reaction test, also known as the RT-PCR, the MAC-Elisa test, and the plaque reduction neutralization test. The problem with these tests is that they can result in false-positive results. Additional testing can be done with the plaque reduction neutralization test, an exam that detects the presence of antibodies to Zika, but the results still aren’t 100 percent.
“False positive tests can occur because they cross react with other similar symptoms that are related to viruses such as dengue or the Chikungunya virus,” says Dr. Gaither. “They also advise not having just your blood tested but they also want to test your urine and saliva to increase the sensitivity of the test. The virus can be cleared from your blood but it still might be lingering in your bladder tissues.”
And while the main concern surrounding Zika has been around miscarriages and microcephaly, that’s not the only thing it can cause. The CDC has also found associations with Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a condition in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, which can lead to muscle weakness and in some cases, paralysis.
“In the case of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), the patient would most likely experience symptoms of profound weakness that can even affect the muscles that enable you to breathe. It’s a serious thing and it’s very scary,” says Dr. Gaither.
Earlier this month the Senate voted to advance $1.1 billion in emergency funding to finance a vaccine. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing one anytime soon. “It can take years for a vaccine to finally be available,” says Dr. Gaither. “Before you create a vaccine you really need to find out how the virus is attacking the body. How is it causing these malformations in babies of the mothers who are being infected? It’s wonderful that money is being allocated to address it, but how can you make a vaccine if you still don’t truly know how this virus is functioning?”
Will I be canceling my trip to Mexico? As of right now, I can’t really say. But I will say that ifI still go I’ll be taking all the precaution necessary to avoid catching Zika. I’m talking using bug repellents with DEET, keeping my body covered as much as possible, and staying away from areas with stagnant water. Because at the end of the day, whether Zika does affect a pregnancy I might have years from now or not, everything is still so unknown and the hassle that comes with contracting the virus really isn’t worth it.