Brain scans for fetuses and protected sex are among the Health Ministry’s latest instructions for dealing with the Zika virus.
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The new instructions, published yesterday, are aimed at both preventing the spread of the virus and early detection of potential harm to those already infected, especially birth defects caused by the virus in pregnant women.
Since October, South American countries where Zika is widespread, especially Brazil, have reported a sharp rise in cases of microcephaly, or small head size, in newborns. Zika is strongly suspected of causing this rise, though it hasn’t been conclusively proven. Microcephaly is associated with incomplete brain development.
Zika also seems to be associated with a rise in other neurological disorders, including Guillain-Barré syndrome, a relatively rare disease that affects the muscles and causes paralysis.
The ministry’s new instructions state that anyone who has recently visited a country affected by Zika, or who has had sex that involved contact with the semen of a man who recently returned from such a country, and who has also developed two of the following four symptoms, should get tested for Zika. The symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. The test needed is a genetic test called PCR.
If a woman who meets the above criteria is pregnant, even if she isn’t confirmed to have Zika, she should also have a fetal brain scan from the 16th week of pregnancy onward. The scan should measure the size of the fetus’ skull and examine the various organs of the brain. If all seems normal, the test should be repeated twice more at intervals of four to six weeks. If the scan indicates possible abnormalities, the ministry said, the woman should be referred to a high-risk pregnancy clinic.
As for men who might have been exposed to the virus, the ministry says that during sex they should either use condoms or see to it that their partners do not come into contact with their semen.
“Based on existing information, a man infected with Zika is liable to secrete a potentially contagious virus in his sperm until 10 weeks after becoming infected,” the ministry said. Moreover, it warned, “There is currently no information that rules out the possibility of secreting the virus through the sperm even after that.”
The instructions also cover the issue of blood donations. Zika can be transmitted through such donations within a month after the donor is infected. Therefore, anyone who has visited a country affected by Zika should refrain from donating blood for 28 days after leaving the country.