The Zika virus is not the only mosquito-borne virus pregnant women need to know about. According to new research, Rift Valley fever is poised to become an even more dangerous global health crisis—especially if you’re pregnant.
The idea that something as innocuous as a mosquito bite could cause severe birth defects is nothing short of terrifying. When cases of Zika broke out in 2015, experts quickly declared it a global health crisis, issuing travel warnings and safe-sex recommendations to help stem its spread. But Zika isn’t the only mosquito-borne virus that pregnant women need to know about—researchers are growing increasingly concerned about the virus that causes Rift Valley fever (RVF), which is found throughout Africa and the Middle East, and can cause birth defects and infant death. Only two cases of infected babies have been documented so far, but because the infection causes mild to no symptoms in the mother, more may have gone unidentified.
What has experts worried is how this virus works. In a recently published study, a team of researchers studied the effects of RVF in rats and human fetal tissue. Unlike Zika, which indirectly affects the placenta, RVF is able to take a short cut and infect the layer of cells in the placenta that’s responsible for delivering nutrients to the fetus. “The fetus is protected from hundreds of thousands of dangers that could affect it,” Amy Hartman, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, who led the research, told the New York Times. “Only a few microbes can get past, and this is one of them.”
To be clear, RVF hasn’t yet reached the level of global health crisis for pregnant women like we’ve seen with Zika—the World Health Organization has called RVF a potential public health emergency. But researchers are on alert now in an effort to help pregnant women across the globe stay ahead of the curve. “Zika caught everybody by surprise,” Hartman told the New York Times. “If doctors had known about Zika’s birth effects, they could have done a lot more to protect pregnant women and babies.” This time around their trying to do just that.
RVF isn’t exactly new. The virus is primarily found in livestock throughout sub-Saharan Africa but it can be transmitted to humans via mosquitos where it can cause flu-like symptoms, liver issues, weakness, back pain, dizziness and weight loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people recover after a few days but severe cases can involve brain swelling, and in extremely rare cases, death. In 2000, there was an outbreak of RVF in the Middle East, according to the WHO, which raised the possibility that it could spread to other parts of the world just like Zika.
At this stage, there are no Zika-like travel advisories for pregnant women related to RVF. But if you’re traveling while pregnant, it pays to take extra precautions, says Adeeti Gupta, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN and founder of Walk-In GYN Care in New York. “I would say, exercise caution while traveling to sub-saharan Africa, West Africa and Madagascar. Thankfully, it is not a widespread health emergency yet,” she says. The best thing you can do is protect yourself against mosquito bites—especially when you’re traveling in Africa or the Middle East.
And to be extra safe, Dr. Gupta advises flagging any travel to your doctor while you’re pregnant so that you can stay up on any risks and get any appropriate vaccinations. “You should also be aware of any infections—even mild flu-like illnesses,” upon your return, Dr. Gupta says. “If you experience any such symptoms, seek medical care to get tested for conditions such as Zika to stay ahead of the game.”