With Dr Devashana Gupta, Medical Director and Fertility Specialist
With the borders now open, more of us are planning those holiday getaways. But should you be thinking about Zika and the risk it might pose to your fertility, fertility treatment or pregnancy?
In 2016, the World Health Organisation declared that the Zika pandemic had ended, that it was no longer seen as an international health concern. And while there are currently no known outbreaks, experts predict future transmissions.
If you are planning on travelling to a country with potential for infection, we therefore recommend you take precautions for the health of your future baby.
So let’s first look at some key facts about the virus.
Zika virus: key facts
What is it?
Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus, most commonly spread to humans through mosquito bites. It was first reported in 1947 and is found primarily in tropical and subtropical areas.
Zika can also be passed on through sexual contact as it can be present in an infected person’s semen.
Is it dangerous?
The time from exposure to symptoms (or incubation period) is estimated to be three to 14 days.
Symptoms are flu-like, and include low-grade fevers, rash, muscle and joint pain, and conjunctivitis, and usually only last a few weeks. Many people may not know they have been infected.
If you’re pregnant, Zika can be of particular concern as it can be passed onto the fetus. Research has shown a link between Zika virus and a brain birth defect called microcephaly (smaller than normal head).
Which countries are affected?
The mosquitoes that can transmit Zika virus are not normally found in New Zealand. Outbreaks have been reported in the following countries and are therefore considered higher risk: Africa, the Americas and South East Asia, as well as the Pacific Islands (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa).
The last recorded outbreak was in 2021 November in India.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) has an online tool with a map that displays the status of Zika across the world. Before travelling, it’s worth checking this map to see where Zika has been reported so you can take a cautious approach.
Ways to prevent infection
There is currently no vaccine or antiviral treatment to prevent infection so it’s important to know what you can do to prevent getting infected.
It is recommended that for anyone travelling, you should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Here are some things you can do, listed on the Ministry of Health’s website:
- Cover yourself by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Use insect repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or IR3535. Check the label and use as directed.
- During the daytime, be vigilant two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset, when mosquitoes are most active.
- When using both sunscreen and repellent, apply the sunscreen first and then the repellent.
- Use permethrin-treated clothing and gear (such as boots, pants, socks, tents).
- Stay in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms, or use bed nets.
Important fertility and health considerations
If you are planning to become pregnant, we advise that you use condoms or abstain from sex if you want to conceive in the next three months and will be visiting an affected country during that time.
If you’re pregnant at the time of your travel, we strongly suggest that you speak with your GP or fertility specialist before you travel. For travel to areas where Zika virus may be present, the Ministry of Health recommends postponing your travel.
There may be options available depending on your situation and where you’re at in your fertility journey. For instance, treatment can be delayed or semen can be frozen before you visit any higher risk countries.
In any case, it is best to speak with your fertility specialist about your options.
Once you’re back
If you have already travelled to a higher risk country and are planning a pregnancy, you will need to take into account the following:
- For you and your partner (if applicable) if you have both travelled to a higher risk country, that you use condoms or abstain from sex for at least three months from the male partner’s onset of symptoms or last possible Zika virus exposure.
- If only the female partner has travelled to a higher risk area, that you use condoms or abstain from sex for at least eight weeks after the onset of symptoms or last possible Zika virus exposure.
- If only the male partner has travelled to a higher risk area, that you use condoms or abstain from sex for three months after the onset of symptoms or last possible Zika virus exposure.
For egg and sperm donors
Because Zika can be sexually transmitted, and the link between the virus and birth defects or microcephaly, at Repromed we have strict screening procedures for egg and sperm donors.
These screening procedures determine whether a person might have recently visited any higher risk areas, and whether they have recently had sexual intercourse with anyone who has visited higher risk areas.
If you are planning to donate eggs or sperm, it’s important that you’re aware there may be some delay in your donation or you may no longer be eligible:
- If you have visited an affected region and have no bites or symptoms, your donation will be delayed for six months.
- If you have been bitten by a mosquito from a Zika virus area or you have symptoms, you won’t be eligible to donate.
For more information about the Zika virus and how this might affect your fertility plans or treatment, see our Zika ReproFact sheet which has helpful tips and advice.
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Published November 2022.