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No babies! Health ministry advises women against getting pregnant, MAJ agrees

Published:Monday | January 18, 2016 | 12:00 AMAnastasia Cunningham
Myrton Smith

Describing as smart and reasonable the move by the Ministry of Health to advise women to delay getting pregnant because of the potential impact of the Zika virus on newborns, Dr Myrton Smith, president of the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ), is also urging women to make use of birth control.

"The reality is that women need to decide, is it really worth the risk of getting pregnant now and having your newborn baby pick up the infection and develop permanent brain damage, and that is if they survive, or do you play it smart and safe and wait until the threat has passed, and then go ahead and have your child," Smith shared with The Gleaner yesterday.

"Bear in mind that some of these babies may not make it to term if they contract the infection; they may actually die before coming to term. I think it is really just good, smart, reasonable advice that should be given serious consideration. Protecting yourself, your family and your child's future should take precedence, against what could turn out to be a big problem."

He continued, "The reality is that you could be taking a very significant risk. The message really is, don't panic, but take the necessary precaution."

With the mosquito-borne Zika virus (ZIKV) rapidly spreading across Latin America and the Caribbean, now confirmed in 18 countries, the Ministry of Health is warning that it is only a matter of time before it reaches Jamaica.

Transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, there has been a link between ZIKV infection and microcephaly - an abnormal growth of the brain and stunting of the growth of the head of the foetus arising from infection in the first months of pregnancy. Babies who develop microcephaly in the womb may not live to full term, may be born prematurely, may be stillborn, or may survive but with lifelong disability.

Jamaica has now joined other countries in advising women to delay becoming pregnant for the next six to 12 months, and those already pregnant to take extra precaution to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes, given the possible link between Zika virus infection and microcephaly.

Brazil, which confirmed its first ZIKV case in May last year, has been stressing that pregnant women and neonates are at greatest risk for developing complications from the Zika virus infection, after 3,174 suspected cases of microcephaly, including 38 deaths.

Yesterday, Jamaica's minister of health, Horace Dalley, stated that although there is no absolute proof, the evidence from Brazil and the information from the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) and other technical partners is strong enough for the country to take this position in seeking to prevent any possible adverse outcome to pregnant women.

"The Zika virus is inching closer and closer to Jamaica, as several of our Caribbean neighbours have reported cases. Women are, therefore, being advised to delay pregnancy if possible. Those already pregnant must take action to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes, as the unborn baby is at high risk if the mother is infected in the first few months of pregnancy," Dalley advised.

According to PAHO's recent epidemiological update, the countries and territories that have to date confirmed local Zika virus transmission are Brazil, Barbados, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, St Martin, Suriname, the United States and Venezuela. This is twice the number of countries and territories that were reported as having locally transmitted cases of Zika in the December epidemiological update.

"It really wouldn't hurt if the birth-control campaign is ramped up and persons avail themselves of the many methods that are easily accessible and widely available," said Smith.

The MAJ president is also encouraging the Government to ensure that all the necessary ZIKV infection facilities are put in place, and be fully operational should there be an outbreak, as well as continue its vector-control operation.

Stressing that with the migratory nature of persons, it was only a matter of time before ZIKV reaches Jamaica, Smith said it was very important to plan ahead.

Both the ministry and the MAJ are also urging Jamaicans to be vigilant in getting rid of any mosquito-breeding sites in and around their environment, in order to minimise the spread of the disease.

PAHO is advising member countries to monitor and report any increases in neurological syndromes and congenital anomalies, which growing evidence suggests may be linked to Zika infections. Countries are also advised to prepare their health-care facilities to respond to a potential increase in demand for specialised care for neurological syndromes, to strengthen prenatal care, and to continue their efforts to reduce the presence of mosquito vectors through effective vector-control strategies and communication to the public.

ZIKV is transmitted from human to human by the bites of infected mosquitoes of the aedes species, particularly the Aedes aegypti, which also transmits dengue and chikungunya. There have been reports of non-vector-borne transmission of ZIKV through the immediate period before or after birth, and sexual intercourse. Blood transfusion has also been identified as a potential means of transmission.

There is no treatment or vaccine for ZIKV.