Pregnant Berkeley woman may have been exposed to Zika virus

A disease that's been recognized since the first half of the 20th century is suddenly prompting a dramatic reaction from U.S. and world health officials. Zika virus appears to cause serious birth defects, and now there's word that a pregnant woman in Berkeley is being tested for the illness.

The virus is spread by mosquitos that live in more tropical areas, such as South and Central America, so people in the states are not in danger of catching it. The woman in Berkeley, who happens to be an attorney, told Scientific American that she may have been exposed to the virus while on vacation in Bora Bora.

Generally speaking, the virus doesn't cause most people serious problems. "It causes some fever, a rash, maybe some joint pains, but it really was pretty mild. And about 80 percent of people who get infected with it don't even get sick at all. They don't even know they've had it," said U.C. Berkeley Professor of Infectious Diseases, Dr. John Swartzberg.

However, Swartzberg says a scary impact of Zika appears to be a major birth defect called microcephaly. "The brain just doesn't develop, and that leads to death in utero, still birth, or it could lead to a child that's born and dies very quickly, or the child could linger for maybe a while months or maybe a few years, but without really much of a brain," he explains.

The Berkeley woman, who is pregnant with her first child, is being tested for Zika infection. There have already been thousands of children born in Brazil with microcephaly. And recently, there have been confirmed cases of Zika in several U.S. states. And a baby born in Hawaii has the defect. All the cases here are among people who had traveled to affected areas. "We're starting to see it really progress really quickly. Now how it got from Micronesia to Brazil is debatable, some people think it may have had something to do with the World Cup and people bringing it. No one's really sure," added Swartzberg.

The CDC is warning women who are pregnant or who plan to become pregnant to avoid nearly two dozen countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. "We are quite concerned about potential complications to the fetus by the Zika infection of pregnant women. And so we really are advising that pregnant women seriously consider postponing travel to these areas if possible," says Beth Bell from the CDC.

Brazil appears to be hardest hit by this outbreak, which is not good for sports fans. The Summer Olympics in Rio are just six and a half months away.

Beyond the possible problems for pregnant women and their babies, it appears that anyone who catches Zika can later develop Guillain-Burre Syndrome, which is a progressive paralysis that starts in the legs and can be life threatening.

The only way to prevent any of this is to not get bitten by infected mosquitos.