Katy Mallory says she’s ready to head to the hospital at moment’s notice: “If we need to get our bags, we actually have them in the car already."
Mallory is pregnant with twin girls, due in early May. Her pregnancy has been relatively routine, except for one twist.
Earlier this year, Mallory’s husband, Dan, traveled to Mexico for business. Mexico is among the countries where the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say mosquitos are actively spreading Zika, the virus that’s been linked to severe birth defects in Brazil.
Dan Mallory says in the middle of his trip, news hit that the Zika wasn’t only transmitted by mosquitos, but could also be sexually transmitted. So when he returned, the Decatur couple decided to follow the CDC’s recommendation: use condoms during sex.
“It was a little bit weird to think about needing to use protection having been together for 10 years and not having had that conversation in a really, really, really long time,” Katy Mallory says.
Dan Mallory says, while the couple knew the risk of him having Zika and passing it to his wife were minimal, “Fear of the unknown was enough to cause pause and be pretty careful.”
Weighing The Risks
“Careful” describes the approach many women in Georgia say they’re taking as mosquito season starts up in the region.
The CDC has linked Zika to microcephaly, a birth defect where babies are born with smaller heads and smaller brains that don’t develop properly. The World Health Organization says as of the end of last month, more than 1,200 cases of microcephaly and other neurological disorders believed to be Zika-related had been reported from eight countries.
Georgia has seen 13 Zika cases so far, all of them in people who have traveled to one of the 55 countries where the WHO says Zika is active. None of the cases were in pregnant women.
While the virus hasn’t been seen in mosquitos here yet, the potential for transmission, while small, exists.
The disease is spread primarily through one species of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, though experts say the tiger mosquito could also carry it. Both are found in Georgia and around 30 other U.S. states. Health officials say their presence means the U.S. could eventually see small, local clusters of the Zika virus.
“One bite can do it,” says Sarah Grzywacz, an Atlanta resident who canceled a trip to Mexico after consulting with her doctor. “One bite and you can be infected, and this child we so deeply planned for and deeply wanted could be forever changed and forever injured by our desire to have a vacation.”
Grzywacz, who’s seven months pregnant, says because the mosquitos that carry Zika area also here, she tries to stay inside as much as possible and wears pants and long-sleeved shirts when she goes outside. She also knows the risk of getting Zika is very, very small, but she wants to be cautious.
“We feel mostly powerless to control what happens because it’s mosquito bites,” Grzywacz says. “How can you go outside in the summer and not get bitten by a mosquito?”
Some Georgia women told WABE they're holding off on a wanted pregnancy all together this year, because of Zika.
“This summer, do I need a full body net? That is everyone’s question,” says Emory Healthcare gynecologist Dr. John Horton.
Of course there's no need for body nets, Horton says, but he understands why women are so worried.
His office hands out a Zika form that asks patients about recent travel and any symptoms they may have. At this point, though, Horton would not recommend women delay pregnancy because of Zika.
“I recognize it’s on our Caribbean door, but we haven’t seen it yet, and it may not come,” Horton says.
Horton points out the mosquitos that carry Zika also carry viruses like Dengue, Yellow Fever and Chikungunya. Those haven’t been widely spread in the U.S., in part because people here are better shielded from mosquitos with screens and air conditioning.
“If it gets here, we will figure this out,” Horton says.
Stopping Zika’s Spread
That “if,” though, has state health officials on alert.
“It’s very important that people are very aware of cleaning up around their house,” says Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald.
The DPH commissioner says the state is taking the risk of Zika seriously. She says the department has set up mosquito traps to figure out where Zika risks might exist. There’s also a public service campaign underway on ways residents can help prevent mosquito breeding.
“Toss any container around your home that you’re not using,” Fitzgerald says. “Make sure you empty your gutters. Make sure you get rid of any standing water.”
Fitzgerald says right now the biggest risk to pregnant women is travel-related.
It’s not a minimal one, given that Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport hit a record 100 million passengers last year. With the 2016 Summer Olympics coming up in Brazil, where the health risks associated with Zika were first identified, there’s increased attention to the issue.
Fitzgerald says anyone who travels to the affected region, which includes much of Central and South America, should wear bug spray with 20 to 30 percent DEET for three weeks after returning to the U.S.
The CDC recommends women wait eight weeks after traveling to a Zika-infected country to conceive. If a women’s male partner shows symptoms of Zika, which include rash, joint pain and eye inflammation, the couple should wait six months because the virus can linger in semen.
Horton, the Emory gynecologist, says that kind of planning is easier said than done.
“Half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned pregnancies,” Horton says. “So you can only do what you can.”
Horton says what women can do is follow the CDC’s recommendations, and if they're very worried, lather on the bug spray this summer.