Pregnant Women's Guide to Diseases in the News

West Nile Virus

Latest news: In 1999, an outbreak of West Nile virus (previously known to circulate among mosquitoes and birds in Africa and Europe) was reported in New York City. Since then the virus has spread throughout much of the continental U.S. In 2011, 658 total cases of the virus and 40 deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2002, a woman contracted West Nile while pregnant; her baby was born with the disease and severe medical issues, although it remains unclear whether the virus or other factors caused the complications. Also in 2002, a Michigan woman contracted West Nile virus from a blood transfusion given shortly after giving birth. Lab analysis found evidence of the virus in her breast milk. When her baby was tested, she also was found to be positive for West Nile, although the child is healthy and has no symptoms.

Potential dangers: People living in areas where West Nile has been reported are at risk, although catching West Nile from one mosquito bite is rare. (Mosquitoes get the virus by feeding on infected birds.) Most cases seem to occur in summer through fall, but in warmer climates the virus can circulate longer, according to the CDC. Fortunately, most people -- about 80 percent -- who are infected with West Nile virus don't get sick at all. Another 20 percent have moderate symptoms, which includes fever, headache, and body aches, and occasionally a skin rash on the torso and swollen lymph glands. Only 1 percent of people -- generally those over 50 -- get a severe infection (called West Nile encephalitis or meningitis). Symptoms include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis. In rare cases it can be fatal. Symptoms usually occur three to 15 days after a bite from an infected mosquito.

How it affects you: Pregnant women are not at greater risk of contracting West Nile virus than the rest of the population. They also aren't at a greater risk of getting a serious reaction to the virus. As for nursing, because of how beneficial breastfeeding is known to be and the fact that the real risk for West Nile virus transmission through nursing is unknown, the case of the Michigan woman doesn't change current breastfeeding recommendations, according to the CDC. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be breastfed for the first year of life or for as long as it's desired by mom and baby.

However, if you live in a risk area for West Nile, take these precautions during the West Nile season to protect yourself from the virus:

  • Apply insect repellent with DEET (you'll see the chemical name, N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide, on the bottle) when you're outdoors. NOTE: Although, according to the CDC, there have been no reported adverse events following the use of DEET insect repellents by pregnant women, you can take some extra precautions: use the spray sparingly and use the product on clothing (not on your skin). Wash your hands and breast area before handling your baby or nursing.
  • Wear pants and long-sleeved clothing outdoors.
  • Stay inside during peak mosquito hours -- dawn, dusk, and early evening.

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