Women throughout Latin America are now being told to hold off on getting pregnant for months or even years to avoid the risk of having babies with birth defects caused by the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
El Salvador just asked women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018. This warning comes with mounting evidence that women who contract Zika in their first or second trimester can pass on the virus to their infants, leading to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies' heads and brains to stop growing.
"We'd like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next," said El Salvador's deputy health minister, Eduardo Espinoza, according to Reuters.
Those who are already pregnant are being advised to cover up when they go outdoors to stave off mosquito bites.
Similar warnings have come out of Brazil, which has experienced the largest Zika outbreak on record, with more than a million people infected. In Colombia, which is currently experiencing the second-largest Zika outbreak, the government has been telling women to delay pregnancy for six to eight months. Meanwhile, Jamaica has asked women to avoid pregnancy for six to 12 months.
Similar public health messages have hit closer to home. On January 15, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a first-of-its-kind travel alert: All women of childbearing age, whether pregnant or not, were told to avoid countries where the Zika virus has been circulating.
The list of places has been growing to include Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Guyana, Cape Verde, and Samoa — and officials warn that more countries will be added soon.
Zika is expected to reach the US mainland by the spring or summer. Whether American women will be advised to delay pregnancy remains to be seen.
In an interview with Vox, Zika researcher Scott Weaver, with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, explained that Zika can incubate in the body for about 12 days. Therefore, if women get pregnant several weeks after getting bitten by a Zika-infected mosquito, researchers believe there would be little chance of transmitting the virus to a baby.
But there's still a lot that's not known about Zika and the link with pregnancy. Officials at the CDC said they believe birth defects are more common in women who have symptoms of the virus, which include fever, bone aches, and rashes. Most people who are infected never show symptoms, and the risk to fetuses in asymptomatic women is not fully understood.