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October 15, 2018

Meghan Markle's pregnancy brings Zika virus back into spotlight

The CDC still advises pregnant women against traveling to infected destinations

Prevention Zika
Prince_Harry_Meghan_Markle_Zika Mike Swift/Newsquest/USA Today Network

Prince Harry of Wales and Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle on their wedding day in May 2018.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, are expecting their first child.

The news, as with all major royal family announcements, tends to be unavoidable. But Monday's announcement also shoved a somewhat forgotten health issue back into the spotlight.

The news that Duchess Meghan is about 12 weeks pregnant broke as the couple arrived in Australia for their first overseas tour. That raised concerns whether Duchess Meghan is at risk of contracting Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that can cause serious birth defects.

The couple will continue with planned visits to Tonga and Fiji, despite the Oceanic island countries carrying a risk of Zika. Both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend pregnant women avoid them until after pregnancy.

Zika itself is mild, prompting fever, rash and joint pain. Most people infected by the virus do not develop symptoms. 

But it can cause microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies heads are born smaller and often with underdeveloped brains. The virus also has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body's immune system attacks its nerves.

Eighty-six countries have reported evidence of Zika since March 2015, when an outbreak first began in Brazil, according to WHO. Zika outbreaks had occurred previously, but this marked the first time the infection was linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome and microcephaly.

The 2015 outbreak spread throughout the Caribbean, Central America and South America. As health complications became linked to the disease, the CDC began issuing travel advisories.

In November 2016, the World Health Organization declared Zika was no longer an international emergency, though the virus still represented "a highly significant and long-term problem." By August 2017, Zika cases had dropped precipitously in the Americas.

Still, the virus remains present and both WHO and the CDC continue to advice women who are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, avoid infected areas.

With the royal family bringing Zika back into the news, here's a brief review of what travelers should know:

• The CDC recommends pregnant women and couples considering pregnancy avoid traveling to 93 destinations where Zika is being transmitted. That includes 25 countries and territories in the Caribbean, a popular vacation spot.

• Scientists have determined that Zika is no longer present in 14 destinations that previously were infected, including the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Martinique and Saint Barthélemy, according to the CDC.

• No local Zika transmission has been reported in the continental United States this year.

• Zika mostly is spread through infected Aedes mosquitoes, which bit both during the day and the night. It also can be transmitted through sex. Condoms reduce the likelihood of getting Zika through sex.

• Couples considering pregnancy should use condoms for at least three months after visiting an area with risk of Zika, even if they don't display symptoms. That time frame is reduced to two months if only the female partner travels to an infected area, because Zika stays longer in semen than other bodily fluids.

• Pregnant women should consult a doctor after traveling to an area infected by Zika, even if they do not develop symptoms.

• All travelers should take steps to prevent mosquito bites by using EPA-registered insect repellents. They should continue taking steps to prevent bites for three weeks after returning. That will prevent the virus from spreading to other people.

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