Canadian women who are pregnant and have travelled to a Zika-affected country should see their doctor, according to Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer.
In new guidelines, Dr. Gregory Taylor recommends that expectant mothers be evaluated and monitored by their physicians at home, even if they don’t have symptoms.
“Pregnant women who think they have been exposed, either they were sick or they have been to countries where they may have been exposed to the mosquitoes should talk to their doctor,” Taylor told Global News.
Taylor admits there’s lots of anxiety out there for pregnant women so the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) wanted to give some guidance on testing and risk for patients and physicians.
Health officials don’t recommend testing for all pregnant women. Women who are sick should consider getting tested, explains Taylor.
The concern is a condition called microcephaly — when babies are born with small heads and brains. Scientists are still trying to confirm if microcephaly is linked with Zika virus, but health officials in Brazil have reported an increase in cases and believe there is a link.
Testing for pregnant women
Sick pregnant women who return from travel to a Zika-affected country should be tested after consulting with their physician, PHAC recommends.
In Canada there are two tests available. The first test can detect the virus in blood or urine up to seven to 10 days after illness. After that the virus “disappears” it’s harder to find, so a second serology test has been developed. Canada started administering the test this week. The secondary test looks for antibodies in blood. PHAC admits the test is not perfect, which means it is not always accurate on the first try. It also take three to four weeks to get a result.
The National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg is the only lab offering the serology test in Canada.
Other traditional screening methods may not show that microcephaly is developing until later a pregnancy. “Screening by ultrasound cannot reliably detect microcephaly until late in the second trimester,” according to PHAC.
The Public Health Agency of Canada consulted with the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada to develop the guidelines.
Thinking about getting pregnant?
PHAC recommends women who are pregnant or want to get pregnant avoid going to an affected country. If women have returned from a trip they should wait two months before trying to get pregnant, and men should wear a condom for two months “to clear the virus.”
“The science is unknown, the science is evolving, and our guidelines may evolve as we learn more and more about this particular virus,” Taylor told Global News.
Should Canadians be concerned?
Health officials want Canadians to know they are considered low risk for being infected.
“At the moment, this particular strain of virus, which is the Aedes virus, is not prevalent in Canada. It has not been able to survive our cold harsh climate very well,” said Dr. Andrew Simor, an infectious disease specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
But there is concern for Canadian pregnant women who have travelled to Zika-affected countries. Officials are still sorting out if there is more of a risk to babies during different trimesters of pregnancy.
The other concern is a rise in cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a rare and potentially life threatening attack on the nervous system which can cause paralysis. GBS often occurs after a viral infection. The connection with Zika is not confirmed but health officials are studying the possible link.
“We do advise any travellers to do mosquito precaution,” said Taylor.
READ MORE: Should Canadians worry about Zika virus?
As for all the activity among health officials worldwide, Simor says this is typical with an emerging infectious disease.
“We are really trying to catch up to better understand how the new infectious disease arose, what caused it, how it spread, how long it stays in the body, what its consequences are, what the risk factors are,” said Simor. “This is all new information that is critically important for us to understand the disease.”
Studies are also underway to find out how long the virus can survive in the blood.
New study shows babies infect with Zika virus born with eye abnormalities
A new study from Brazil is linking Zika virus infection to eye damage in babies. The vision-threatening lesions were found on babies born with microcephaly.
Twenty-nine children were evaluated at the Roberto Santos General Hospital in Salvador, Brazil. Researchers found damaged retina or optic nerves in 10 of the 29 children.
Seven out of the 10 newborns had damage in both eyes, some of the conditions were more severe causing blindness. The results were published in JAMA Ophthalmology.
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