UAB Medicine News


Zika Virus Can Cause Birth Defects; Here’s What You Need to Know

zika virus woman

First discovered in 1947 and named after the Zika Forest in the African nation of Uganda, the Zika virus began receiving widespread attention in 2016, when the World Health Organization declared it a global public health emergency.

Today, the mosquito-transmitted virus is making new headlines for the link between Zika infection during pregnancy and birth defects such as microcephaly (small head), complex brain malformations, and injury to the fetus’ eyes. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika, though antiviral drugs to treat it are being studied. The virus can cause rash, fever, joint/muscle pain, and other symptoms in those infected.

The virus is difficult to detect, because about four in five people with a Zika infection do not show any obvious signs or symptoms. In addition to mosquito bites, the virus can be transmitted through sex with an infected person, and it can be passed from mother to fetus.

Zika VirusZika began showing up in the United States within the past few years, and the term congenital Zika syndrome was created once the medical community began noticing the connection between the virus and birth defects. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recommending screenings for pregnant women if they or a partner traveled to an area of the world where Zika is common. Click here to see the CDC’s updated list of Zika-affected areas.


The current recommendations regarding Zika infection and pregnancy are summarized below:

  • If you want to have a baby and plan to travel to an affected area, wait two months after returning before trying to get pregnant.
  • Avoid traveling to Zika-affected areas during pregnancy.
  • If you or a partner must travel to or live in affected areas, protect yourself and your family from mosquito bites by using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and treat clothing and gear with an insecticide called permethrin (or purchase clothing and gear pre-treated with permethrin).

Testing Guidelines

If you or a partner shows symptoms of a Zika infection, or if either of you plan to live in or travel to a Zika-affected area, notify your OB/GYN doctor. Recommendations for testing are summarized below:

  • Pregnant women with possible exposure and symptoms of infection should have a blood and urine test done up to 12 weeks after symptoms begin. Zika virus nucleic acid testing (NAT) should be done on both blood and urine, and antibody testing should be conducted on your blood.
  • Pregnant women without symptoms but who have ongoing exposure should be offered NAT testing for Zika infection three times during pregnancy.
  • Pregnant women who have had possible exposure but are not showing symptoms should not undergo testing unless their fetus shows signs of infection on an ultrasound. Routine testing for Zika infection is no longer recommended for women who have been exposed in the past but currently have no symptoms.
  • Children of women with possible Zika infection during pregnancy should undergo a standard evaluation, including being observed for potential problems with growth, vision, and brain function.
  • Newborns with suspected congenital Zika syndrome and babies born to women with a laboratory-confirmed Zika infection should undergo additional laboratory testing at birth.

Click here to learn more about the Zika virus and pregnancy.

Produced by UAB Medicine Marketing   Communications (learn more about our content).