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Pregnant? Here are some tips for staying safe from Zika this summer

August 31, 2016

pregnantWritten by Kathleen O’Brien | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

As if there isn’t enough to worry about when you’re pregnant, the summer of 2016 presents its own concern in the form of the Zika virus.

The mosquito-borne illness is the first infectious disease since rubella (“German measles”) to cause birth defects – in Zika’s case, microcephaly, or stunted brain development.

By next summer, there may be a vaccine for the Zika virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced recently that clinical trials could start on a vaccine as early has January.

But if you’re pregnant now, that doesn’t help.

Here are steps you can take to make your corner of the world a little safer:

1. Focus on your own property

While New Jersey has tons of mosquitoes, only two species are capable of carrying the virus from person to person. And those mosquitoes have a limited flying range of only a few hundred yards, according to Rutgers entomologist Dina Fonseca, a professor in the entomology department.

The main culprit, the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, is considered a “weak flyer,” she said. “If females emerge from a container, mate, find a blood meal and then also a place to lay their eggs in a single yard, they may never move any farther.”

That means Zika-bearing mosquitoes aren’t “flying here” like something out of a Pixar movie. While there have been nearly 60 cases in New Jersey of people who came down with the Zika illness after they returned from regions where Zika is spreading, an infected person would likely have to be a family member or neighbor – someone in close proximity – in order to be able to pass it along to someone else.

Most Zika transmission takes place this way: human-mosquito-human. (The exception is sexual transmission; more on that later.) That makes the virus far more controllable than something like West Nile, health experts say, because West Nile transmission is mosquito-bird-mosquito-human.

We have no control over where birds fly, but people who have been diagnosed with Zika can be instructed to avoid getting bitten by a mosquito so the virus doesn’t spread.

The small flight range means you can reduce your chance of getting bitten at home by Zika-bearing species of mosquitoes by a few maintenance steps for your house and neighborhood.

You – or better yet, another family member – can do a weekly check of your property to eliminate all standing water, where the Zika-type mosquitoes lay eggs. That means flower pots, corrugated rainwater pipes, puddles on grill covers, and the classic old tire.

2. Be the neighborhood busybody

Fonseca even suggests talking with your neighbors about standing water on their properties as well.

Even if your neighbor is insistent on keeping her bird bath full of water, changing out the water every 7 days will thwart the breeding cycle, according to Fonseca.

3. Embrace air-conditioning 

Another quick fix is to make the inside of your house a mosquito-free environment by fixing any holes in screens (naturally) and by making use of air conditioning.

Good ol’ AC makes the air too dry for mosquitoes, so even if one gets into your house or apartment, it isn’t going to survive for long.

4. Make some informed decisions about chemicals

Using mosquito repellant is an obvious strategy – but one that causes angst among those pregnant women who want to shun strong chemicals during their pregnancy.

The problem with using insect repellants that don’t rely so heavily on chemicals is that they tend to be less effective, according to tests by Consumer Reports. Their top two products were Sawyer Picaridin and Natrapel 8 Hour, which each contain 20 percent picaridin, and Off! Deepwoods VIII, which contains 25 percent DEET. (They don’t recommend DEET above 25 percent.)

While it found some brands using Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus to be effective, that oil should not be used on children under the age of three, so a pregnant woman with small children would need to use something else for them.

For what it’s worth, the Environmental Protection Agency has no special precautions for use of any registered product by pregnant or lactating women.

5. Don’t want to spray yourself? Spray your clothing instead

For pregnant women who need to spend some time outdoors, one additional strategy would be to wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants treated with permethrin, the chemical used to destroy head lice.

The EPA website says of the chemical, “Based on our review of scientific studies, there is no evidence of reproductive or developmental effects to mother or child following exposure to permethrin.”

Pre-treated clothing is available for purchase, as is spray for a do-it-yourself project.

Don’t forget safe sex

If your partner has recently traveled to one of the many countries of South or Central America, including the Caribbean, where local transmission of Zika has taken place, he should continue to use a condom upon returning home.

That guideline applies even if he hasn’t felt sick, as the Zika virus causes noticeable symptoms in only one out of every five people it infects. That precaution should continue throughout the pregnancy, the CDC recommends.

Photo by EPA/Zoltan Balogh.