We must protect pregnant women from the Zika virus

Maggie Arias, who is pregnant and lives and works in Coconut Grove, worries about the local Zika outbreak.
Maggie Arias, who is pregnant and lives and works in Coconut Grove, worries about the local Zika outbreak. emichot@miamiherald.com

Earlier this month, moms around the world celebrated #BumpDay, a day devoted to maternal health sponsored by the What To Expect Foundation. The message was clear and compelling: Healthy futures start with healthy beginnings, and every mom deserves the help she needs to deliver a healthy start in life for her baby.

That same week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was working with Florida to fight the Zika virus spread by local mosquitoes in a neighborhood of Miami. This amplifies another clear and compelling message about maternal health: We need to step up awareness and our efforts to help protect moms-to-be and their babies from Zika infection and the risks it poses.

For a pregnant woman and her developing baby, Zika can be devastating. If a mother-to-be is infected with Zika — either from a mosquito or through unprotected sex with an infected partner — the virus can cause severe damage to the developing fetal brain resulting in microcephaly and other serious, irreversible birth defects.

While the birth defects caused by infection in the first trimester may be most severe, Zika may be able to harm the fetus at any time during pregnancy.

Researchers are discovering more about Zika virus every day — and there is much more still to be learned. But this will take time and it will take additional funding, which Congress has yet to provide. In the meantime, we can’t wait. It is critical to act now to protect expectant moms.

Zika has already affected moms, babies, families and communities across Latin America and the Caribbean. Right now, Zika is spreading at an alarming rate in Puerto Rico. At this rate, thousands more pregnant women will become infected with Zika in Puerto Rico this year. The human toll it might take is unthinkable, the long-term human and economic cost incalculable.

Controlling the mosquito that carries Zika will take a concerted and comprehensive effort. It’s a tough mosquito to kill — it lives both indoors and outdoors and can hatch in a pool of water as small as a bottle cap.

Everyone, especially expectant moms, should protect themselves from mosquito bites.

▪ A key CDC recommendation for pregnant women is to avoid travel to areas with active Zika transmission, including the areas in Miami-Dade County where mosquito-borne spread of Zika has been reported.

▪ If you live anywhere that has the mosquitoes that can carry Zika, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants (not easy for mom-to-be in summer heat, but important), and use an effective EPA-registered insect repellent (such as one containing DEET) on all exposed skin (especially legs and feet, where mosquitoes are likely to bite).

▪ Always apply the repellent according to the label instructions; many need to be re-applied during the day. These repellents are safe for all people, including pregnant women.

▪ Also, for pregnant women and their partners who live in or traveled to areas with active Zika transmission, CDC recommends consistent and correct use of condoms to prevent infection during sex or to avoid having sex for the duration of the pregnancy.

▪ Keep the number of mosquitoes around your home down by getting rid of any standing water where mosquitoes can lay eggs.

▪ Keep mosquitoes outside by using window and tightly fitting screens, and run the air conditioning if you have it.

In any area where the mosquitoes that can carry Zika are present, moms-to-be should take these actions to be safe. As with most public health risks, we don’t need to panic, but we do need to be proactive. Waiting for a risk to become an emergency isn’t cost effective or smart. But most of all, we need prevention — the key, after all, to controlling any health risk.

Although Zika won’t affect all of us, it can be devastating to the most vulnerable among us. Not only do healthy futures start with healthy beginnings, but our collective future depends on ensuring those healthy beginnings. Investing in the health of moms and babies always pays off exponentially — and it’s also our shared responsibility, never more so than now. Let’s act now to protect our most vulnerable from this new and unprecedented health threat as if our future depends on it . . . because it does.

Dr. Tom Frieden is director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heidi Murkoff is the author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and president of the What to Expect Foundation.