Up until a year or two ago, the Zika virus popped up in small, distant pockets of the world (like Uganda and Yap). Then in 2015, doctors in Brazil began to observe a dramatic uptick in cases of microcephaly in newborns. Careful research over the past year uncovered a causal link between maternal Zika infection during pregnancy and harmful effects to the fetus — ranging from microcephaly to other life-long nervous system and physical effects. So naturally, women who are trying to conceive or who are pregnant worry about their health and the wellbeing of their unborn children. But stressing about Zika won’t prevent it, and it may actually cause harm to your baby.
So to help moms-to-be relax and enjoy their pregnancy, here are 5 ways to cope with Zika stress.
1. Educate yourself, the right way. The Internet is a morass of information. One of the keys to managing Zika anxiety is figuring out which sites are based on current facts and scientific knowledge. The ones that spout half-truths and urban myths? Ignore them. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) post the most up-to-date information based on expert opinion and assessment of the current surveillance trends of Zika. It’s a great site to turn to for both laypeople and healthcare providers if you need advice on Zika prevention, testing and risks.
2. Talk with your healthcare provider. Who can forget the New York Times cover photo of the Brazilian infant with microcephaly featured in one of the earlier mainstream articles spotlighting the link between Zika and effects on pregnancy? Since Zika causes devastating birth defects when exposed in utero, doctors and nurses involved in women’s health are constantly trying to educate themselves about it. Ask your healthcare provider for tips on Zika prevention and testing guidelines. Understand, though, that we are all in the process of learning more about this virus as the months pass. As stated above, Zika is a pretty recent phenomenon, so for most health care providers, it’s been a pretty rapid fire learning process about the virus over the past six months.
3. Minimize your exposure to Zika. If you don’t live in an area where the virus is locally spread, avoid traveling to areas where it’s active. For an updated world map of Zika transmission, check the CDC’s website. If you have to travel to Zika-prone areas, follow the CDC guidelines to avoid transmitting the virus once your return from your trip. Do not have unprotected sex and don’t try to conceive for at least 8 weeks after your trip. Men should wait a full 6 months after possible Zika exposure. If you show symptoms of infection (rash, pink eye, muscle aches, low grade fever) within a month of their return or have been diagnosed with Zika (through approved blood tests), follow the same guidelines. If you are actively trying to conceive, it’s a good idea to have your male partner freeze some sperm prior to traveling to a Zika-active region. This way, you won’t have to wait a full 6 months to try and conceive.
For those living in regions where Zika is active, be practical: wear long sleeves and pants; use mosquito repellent; avoid areas that are close to stagnant water (where mosquitoes like to congregate); and if closed windows and A/C are not an option, sleep under mosquito nets and close the screens on your windows and doors.
4. Share your anxiety with your friends and partner. If you get palpitations just thinking about Zika, chances are your friends or partner are, too. Verbalizing your thoughts and getting a reality check with those close to you can help diffuse the tension. So make sure keep the communication open. Compartmentalize the anxiety by devoting just 30 minutes a day (not more) to troll the Internet for Zika information or to hash out the latest Zika news with your friends. Then pack your thoughts and the information away (until the next day).
5. Take a deep breath. Zika can lead to heartbreaking pregnancy effects, but remember that it’s only one small factor affecting pregnancy.There are so many things women have control over before and during pregnancy that have real, positive impact. Folic acid supplementation (400mcg to 1mg a day) dramatically decreases the risk of certain brain and spinal cord defects in fetuses. If you stop smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy, you improve your chances of having a healthier pregnancy. Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is one of the most common causes of microcephaly — far more frequent than Zika — and is spread through close contact with young children. So practice good hand hygiene (liberal use of Purell and hand-washing) to avoid getting sick. But most importantly, breathe and enjoy this beautiful miracle of yours: you are making life, after all!
While these steps won’t prevent Zika infection, they are among the most important measures women can adopt to try and ensure a healthy pregnancy. They will also help them relax during their pregnancy, which is crucial to the wellbeing and health of their little bundles.
Photography by Jonica Moore for Well Rounded NY.