West Nile Virus and Pregnancy

This year, West Nile virus has become a serious problem in some areas of the country, such as Texas. Because there is no real treatment for West Nile virus infection, pregnant women may want to take extra care to not expose their babies to the virus.

What is West Nile virus?

West Nile virus is a virus, usually transmitted by a bite from an infected mosquito. An infection from West Nile virus can show up in a variety of ways. In most people, there will be no symptoms at all, though this does not mean that an unborn baby could not develop the infection, too. About 20% of people who are infected with West Nile virus will develop West Nile fever, which is usually mild. West Nile fever symptoms include fever, headache, and body aches, and may sometimes include a rash and/or lymph node swelling. About 1 in 150 (0.7%) infected people will develop a more serious version of the disease, either West Nile encephalitis or meningitis. These more serious symptoms include neck stiffness, muscle weakness, confusion/disorientation, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and/or coma, in addition to a headache and a higher fever than the mild form of the disease.

At this time, there is no treatment for West Nile infection. Severe cases of infection are usually hospitalized to make sure the patient can get full-time supportive care like IV fluids, if needed, and to prevent secondary infections.

Do pregnant and breastfeeding moms need to worry about West Nile virus?

At this point, no one knows how often a pregnant or breastfeeding woman who gets infected with West Nile virus would pass it to her baby. It is also unknown how often the virus would cause problems for baby, even if it is passed on. Experts recommend that pregnant women in areas known to have infected mosquitoes take precautions to reduce their exposure (listed below). If a mom who is breastfeeding develops symptoms of West Nile infection, at this point the recommendation is to continue to do so. The benefits of breastfeeding for baby are well known and very important, and the rate of transmission of West Nile virus through breastmilk is unknown, if it exists. It seems unlikely that there is any transmission through breastmilk, since West Nile virus is NOT transmitted by touching, kissing, or from health care workers who have treated infected patients.

How can I reduce my exposure to West Nile Virus?

The best way to reduce your exposure to West Nile virus, is to reduce your chance of being bitten by mosquitoes.

  • Reduce mosquito breeding places around your home. Eliminate standing water in plant pots, low places, clogged gutters, dips in children’s toys, etc. If you have standing water that you want to keep (such as a birdbath), add a substance to break the surface tension. Commercial ones are available at nurseries, or you can use a drop or 2 of a natural, phosphate-free, biodegradable liquid soap.
  • Reduce mosquito hiding places around your home. Mosquitoes love to hide on the undersides of ivy leaves and similar plants. If you have a lot of ivy around your home, consider using a safe garlic spray or other safe spray to help keep them away.
  • Wear protective clothing.When you go into areas where you are likely to encounter mosquitoes, wear clothes they can not bite through. Light-colored, loose-fitting clothes will work best.
  • Wear insect repellent. Many experts recommend wearing bug spray with DEET whenever you go outside. While DEET is officially safe for pregnant women to wear, if you are hesitant to use a bug spray containing DEET (I personally try not to touch the stuff), there are other effective alternatives. A chemical called picaridin is as effective as DEET, but is odorless and approved for use in children 2 months old and up. For those who want a natural insect repellent, the CDC says those natural repellants containing oil of lemon eucalyptus are the most effective.
  • Make your body less attractive to mosquitoes. Much of what attracts mosquitoes is said to be genetic. Other known attractants include sweating, breathing out more carbon dioxide, movement, heat, having type O blood, being pregnant (darn!), and being overweight. There are many people that claim that what you eat effects how many mosquitoes will bite. Unfortunately, it seems that none of these things have yet to be proven true. But, since eating raw garlic or foods rich in B-vitamins such as Brewer’s yeast is unlikely to cause harm (other than to your breath!), they are something to try.
  • Try to plan outdoor activities during full daylight. Mosquitoes are more active at dawn and dusk, so try to stay inside (or do the above tips) during early morning or twilight hours.
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