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Published on July 11, 2016

Rio athletes aren’t the only ones concerned about Zika Rio athletes aren’t the only ones concerned about Zika

While Olympic athletes and visitors weigh the risks of exposure to the Zika virus in Rio de Janeiro next month, the concern applies to everyone thinking about traveling to one of the affected countries, said Hyannis obstetrician/gynecologist Tara Chute, MD.

“We are encouraging people to cancel trips – especially during pregnancy,” she said.

Dr. Chute’s office has written letters to travel companies in support of local residents who have cancelled trips or cruises because of the recommendation to avoid Zika areas.

Zika can harm a pregnant woman’s fetus, causing microcephaly (unusually small head) and other brain abnormalities, as well as harming the eyes, said Dr. Chute, who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology at Cape Cod Hospital. It can also cause the mother to miscarry or have a stillbirth.

The mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus have been found in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Mexico, Cape Verde, and the Pacific Islands, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). There have been no Zika cases linked to mosquito transmission here in the U.S., however there have been 1,132 cases in this country that were linked to transmission in the affected areas outside the U.S, according to the CDC.

There have been 20 Zika cases in Massachusetts since 2015, according to the federal CDC database.

How Zika is Spread, and How You Can Prevent It

One of the biggest concerns is that the Zika can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, said Dr. Chute. Men can carry the Zika virus in their semen for up to six months, she said. A man who has traveled home to Brazil, vacationed in Puerto Rico, or escaped on an island cruise may unwittingly be bringing the virus back home.

“So, in our population, the biggest issue is that we have childbearing couples that are exposed to this, and either want to get pregnant or aren’t on contraception and can become pregnant, and that can be very problematic,” Dr Chute said. “We recommend that you do not travel to areas affected by the Zika mosquito right now.”

The disease is initially spread by the Aedes species mosquito (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus), the same species that spreads dengue fever and chikunguna viruses. There is no vaccine or treatment and scientific knowledge of the disease is rapidly changing as researchers learn about it.

The CDC has developed a set of recommendations for avoiding Zika, which include:

  • Use EPA-approved insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-methane-diol and take other protective measures if traveling overseas, such as staying indoors, sleeping under a mosquito net and wearing long sleeves and pants.
  • If you’re a man who has traveled to or lives in a Zika affected area, and your female partner is pregnant, use condoms for all forms of sex or abstain from sex for the duration of the pregnancy.
  • Women should tell their doctor if they have a male partner who has traveled to or lives in a Zika area.

How Do You Know If You Have Zika?

Dr. Chute said her office talks to all its patients about Zika and travel recommendations at their initial obstetrics visit.

“If they have had exposure or had any symptoms, we encourage them to get tested, and we order that through the Cape Cod Hospital laboratory,” Dr. Chute said.

In order to order the testing, physicians must first obtain permission from the CDC, she explained.