On February 1, 2016, the Zika virus disease received international attention when it was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization.3 Zika virus infection has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect of the brain, in infants whose mothers were infected with the virus during the pregnancy. 4 Along with this devastating birth defect, infants impacted by Zika virus disease are experiencing additional defects, including impaired hearing and diminished growth.
While more information is needed about the risks of Zika virus infection during pregnancy, public health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), are recommending that pregnant women and women seeking to become pregnant consider delaying non-essential travel to Zika-affected areas and assure their partners are not infected with the Zika virus, as there are cases of sexual transmission of this mosquito-borne disease.5 Furthermore, women who want to become pregnant are encouraged to have a conversation with their health care provider about their reproductive intentions, the potential risk for Zika virus during pregnancy, and their partners’ potential exposures to Zika virus. However, it is important to note that, while the infection originates the bite of infected mosquitoes, there is evidence that the Zika virus can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse.5
The Zika epidemic has placed much-needed focus on the importance of reproductive life planning and preventing of unintended pregnancy. Some individuals will seek out care at health care delivery sites funded by the Title X Family Planning Program based on concerns about Zika virus infection. The many other women and men who present for care without Zika virus disease on the forefront of their minds will benefit greatly from family planning providers’ standardized practice of assessing clients’ reproductive life plans, which outline personal goals about becoming pregnant.
For women and men wishing to become pregnant, a conversation around reproductive life planning might include an assessment of potential exposure to Zika virus disease, as well as a discussion of the signs and symptoms and the potential risks associated with Zika virus infection. This is a prime opportunity to include male partners in the conversation around family planning, as males should also take precautions to protect themselves and their partners from exposure to the Zika virus.
For women and men not wanting to become pregnant in the immediate future, family planning providers have a springboard todiscuss strategies to prevent unintended pregnancy; these strategies should include counseling on contraceptive methods. This conversation is a prime opportunity to assist women and men in exploring their thoughts around pregnancy and contraception, and support them in taking steps towards preventing unintended pregnancy.
As the health care community rallies forces to decrease the spread and impact of this devastating disease, greater emphasis has been placed on reproductive life plans and preconception counseling. Family planning providers have a unique role to play in supporting women and men of reproductive age in exploring and achieving their reproductive life goals, and addressing the negative reproductive outcomes attributed to the Zika virus disease.
To learn more about the CDC Preconception Counseling recommendations for women and men at-risk for Zika virus exposure, click here.
3 WHO Statement on the first meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Zika virus and observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal malformations. (2016) World Health Organization. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/2016/1st-emergency-committee-zika/en/
4 For Pregnant women. (2016) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/pregnancy/index.html
5 Petersen EE, Polen KN, Meaney-Delman D, et al. (2016) Update: Interim Guidance for Health Care Providers Caring for Women of Reproductive Age with Possible Zika Virus Exposure — United States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016; 65:315–322. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6512e2