Pa. authorities: Zika virus a concern if you're pregnant

Sean Philip Cotter, and Christopher Dornblaser
York Dispatch

Over the past couple of weeks, the mosquito-borne Zika virus has leapt into the headlines — and therefore, as so many ailments suddenly have, the fears of Americans.

Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The mosquito is a vector for the proliferation of the Zika virus currently spreading throughout Latin America. New figures from Brazil's Health Ministry show that the Zika virus outbreak has not caused as many confirmed cases of a rare brain defect as first feared. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In a conference call Friday afternoon, Pennsylvania health officials said the disease is usually nothing to worry about; only about one in five people who contract it even show symptoms, and the symptoms are more or less just those of the flu, with similar severity and recovery time.

Unless you’re a woman who’s pregnant or planning to become pregnant soon. Then, it’s a big concern, they said. Health authorities have linked the disease to women giving birth to babies with microcephaly — abnormally small heads with incomplete brain development.

“It’d be a very big deal for a pregnant woman,” said Ray Pontzer, an infectious-disease specialist from Allegheny County.  “A big deal, indeed.”

Lori Heathcote, travel agent for Travel Time, said the agency has sent out emails to any clients the virus may affect advising them to cancel trips.

"You just don't want to take any chances," she said.

Heathcote said the office has received a couple of calls regarding the virus but nothing overwhelming. Aside from pregnant woman, she does not anticipate the general population's travel being affected by the virus.

"I really don't think it's a huge concern from what they're saying at this point," she said.

Authorities do expect the virus to spread to at least parts of the U.S. eventually, but for the moment the virus isn’t here yet; There are some confirmed cases of it in this country, but all of those infected contracted it elsewhere, said Loren Robinson, the deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention  from the state Department of Health.

Right now, the virus is endemic — it’s established — in 22 countries across Central and South America, Robinson said. So that means the only way you can get it is if you go to one of those countries and get bitten by a mosquito carrying it.

It’s only transmitted that way, and not by casual contact, she said.

This 2006 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a female Aedes aegypti mosquito in the process of acquiring a blood meal from a human host. Scientists believe the species originated in Africa but came to the Americas on slave ships. It has continued to spread through shipping and airplanes. Now it's found through much of the world. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)

Her advice boiled down to this: If you’re a pregnant woman who has been to a country where Zika is endemic within the past several months, go to your doctor and get checked out. If you haven’t visited one of those countries, you’re fine.

Pontzer added that he’d suggest trying to avoid any trip to those countries if you’re pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant very soon.

Robinson said there are six to eight people in Pennsylvania who are being tested for the disease; all have traveled recently to a country where the infection exists.

Kurt Barnhart, a representative from the The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said much is still unknown about the dangers pregnant mothers face from being infected with this disease.

”We still don’t completely understand the causal relationship,” he said.

For example, while they know that not every mother who’s infected gives birth to a baby with microcephaly, they don’t know what percent of the time it happens.

There’s no vaccine for Zika virus. If you do catch it, you only have a 20 percent chance of showing any symptoms at all, and if you do, it’ll be more or less like the flu. If you aren’t pregnant, the doctors don’t even recommend going to the hospital unless your fever gets very high or there are other complications. Just rest and drink water, they said.

— Reach Sean Cotter