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Starting a family? An expert answers Zika questions

SALT LAKE CITY — The stories and photos began trickling in late last year: reports of a little-known virus infecting pregnant women in Brazil, linked to thousands of cases of birth defects and brain damage in babies.

Although experts say the risk of a major outbreak in the U.S. is low, the specter of Zika virus and its association with birth defects in children has gripped women who are pregnant or hoping to be.

On Tuesday, health officials confirmed the first known case of Zika virus in Utah.

The patient is a child between the age of 2 and 10 years who had recently traveled to a country where Zika virus is circulating, Utah Department of Health epidemiologists said.

Experts are urging people to stay calm but cautioning women who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant to take extra precautions.

Dr. Andrew Pavia, pediatric infectious diseases chief at University of Utah Health Care, answered common questions about the Zika virus for women.

How is the virus transmitted?

The most important way Zika virus is transmitted is through the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitos become infected by biting a person who has Zika virus in their blood, so unless infected persons are present in an area, mosquitos themselves cannot transmit.

Zika virus is also transmitted from a pregnant woman to her baby while it is in her uterus.

There have been a modest number of cases where a man infected with Zika virus has transmitted the virus to his partner. We do not know how often this happens, but until more is known, men who are infected with Zika virus or who have traveled to an area where Zika virus is being transmitted should abstain from unprotected sex with pregnant women.

If I’m trying to get pregnant, should I wait to do so?

If you are trying to become pregnant, you should avoid traveling to areas where Zika virus is being transmitted, or delay trying to get pregnant until after you return and are tested for Zika virus infection.

While it is likely that there may be limited transmission of Zika virus in some parts of the southeastern United States this summer when mosquitos become more active, the risk of acquiring Zika virus in the U.S. is likely to remain extremely low.

Therefore, women or their partners who are not traveling to areas where Zika virus is circulating should not need to delay pregnancy.

If I or my partner get the virus, is our future child at risk of having birth defects?

Zika virus can be detected in the blood for four to seven days.

We do not know if it persists longer in a woman’s reproductive tract, but based on what we know now, it is unlikely that there is a risk to children a woman conceives a few months after infection.

Zika virus has been detected in the semen of an infected man up to 62 days after illness. Therefore it may be possible for an infected man to infect his pregnant partner for some time after infection. However, we don’t have all the answers we need yet, and a great deal of critical research needs to be done.

What should I do if I have plans to travel to an affected area?

Women planning to travel to an affected area should avoid becoming pregnant before, during or immediately after travel. You should speak to your provider about using a highly effective, reversible form of birth control.

We do not yet know how long you should wait after returning to begin to try to become pregnant, but for now, waiting two to three months seems reasonable.

If I think I’ve been exposed, what should I do?

If you are pregnant and think you have been exposed either through travel or through unprotected sex with a man who has traveled to an affected area, you should see your provider and arrange to be tested for Zika virus.

Testing is currently provided through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Detailed information for pregnant women and their health care providers is available on the CDC website, CDC.gov/zika.

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DaphneChen_