On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued updated Zika testing guidelines for pregnant women. Compared to the previous guidelines, the new recommendations are looser. The most notable difference: The agency no longer recommends routine testing for asymptomatic pregnant women, even if they’ve traveled to a Zika-impacted region or otherwise could have been exposed to the virus.
The CDC now recommends that pregnant women who have recently been exposed to Zika and exhibit symptoms should be tested as soon as possible. In addition, pregnant moms-to-be who have repeated, ongoing exposure to Zika (for example, if you’re constantly traveling to an area with a Zika outbreak) should be tested at least three times throughout their pregnancy, even if they’re asymptomatic. All pregnant women should be asked about possible Zika virus exposure before and during pregnancy at every prenatal appointment as well, the CDC says.
However, the reason the CDC no longer recommends routine Zika testing for pregnant asymptomatic women who’ve potentially been exposed to the virus — but do not experience constant exposure to Zika — is because the agency is seeing an increasing number of false positives. The agency did stress that women and their doctors should talk about the decision to test or not but also noted that as the number of Zika cases decline and researchers learn more about the virus, the potential for false positives increases.
Laura Riley, vice chair of the obstetrics department at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Washington Post that the new recommendations are an attempt to strike a balance between testing people and causing panic. According to Riley, the test officials are using is “not quite as specific as we hoped. When the disease incidence decreases, the test performs even worse than it did when there was lots of disease. What the patient then gets is a potentially false positive, and that creates nothing but hysteria.”
That said, the CDC still emphasizes that pregnant women with Zika-related symptoms should be tested as soon as possible. Symptoms are often flu-like and include:
- red eyes
- a rash
- pain behind the eyes
- joint pain
This week, officials identified the first locally transmitted case of Zika in the U.S. since last fall. Although the person has not been identified, the New York Times reports that she or he lives in Hidalgo County, Texas (on the Mexican border), and likely picked up the infection locally through a “mosquito bite in South Texas the last few months,” according to the Texas State Department of Health. He or she is no longer able to spread the virus, officials added.
Because there is no treatment or vaccine for Zika, prevention remains your best weapon against the virus. Here are a few steps you can take to lower your chances of becoming infected:
- Avoid traveling to areas with active Zika outbreaks.
- If you or your partner have recently traveled to a Zika-affected area, use condoms or dental dams or wait six months before trying to conceive. If you’re pregnant, use condoms or dental dams or avoid sex for the duration of your pregnancy.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks that are permethrin-treated whenever you go outside.
- Use mosquito repellent whenever you go outside.
- Sleep in screened-in rooms or rooms with closed windows and air-conditioning.
Zika can cause microcephaly and other birth defects, but this doesn’t mean that if you’re infected, your baby will automatically develop any health problems. It simply means that babies whose moms are infected during pregnancy are at an increased risk of birth defects. Zika is otherwise not harmful to healthy adults. If you have any questions at all about the virus or your potential exposure to it, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor. He or she will be able to talk you through specific issues and decide if testing for the virus is right for you.