On the one side, there's Zika, an otherwise mild virus spread by mosquitoes which can cause devastating birth defects in the babies of infected pregnant women. On the other side, there's DEET, a heavy-duty chemical that can prevent mosquito bites yet comes with its own laundry list of potential side effects. And smack in the middle are the pregnant women who are desperate to learn how to keep their babies safe.
With the possible connection between the mosquito-borne Zika virus and birth defects, should pregnant women use chemically-laden DEET-based insect repellents to prevent infection?
The short answer is yes.
The World Health Organization recently declared the birth defects related to the Zika virus a public health emergency. Health experts are still trying to understand the link, but what they know right now is that in countries where Zika infections are exploding, so too are the cases of the birth defect microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development.
Zika is spread by mosquitoes. So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised pregnant women to postpone travel to countries where Zika cases have been high, and to "strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites," if they must travel to those areas. These steps include covering exposed skin with long-sleeved shirts, pants, and hats; using bed netting when sleeping outdoors; and using DEET-based insect repellents to prevent mosquito bites.
According to Lori Wolfe, M.S., the president of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists, DEET has some "toxic capacity," and is generally only recommended in small amounts and extreme circumstances for pregnant women. But potential Zika exposure certainly qualifies as an extreme circumstance. And according to an information sheet compiled by the organization, there are no studies directly linking DEET to adverse health effects for babies when used by mothers during pregnancy.
Even the Environmental Working Group lists DEET as a top pick for preventing mosquito bites, noting that DEET's safety profile is better than most people realize and that its effectiveness at preventing bites often outweighs any potential risks.
Bottom line: If you're pregnant and living or traveling to an area where your risk of contracting Zika is high, than you should consider using a DEET-based insect repellent to prevent infection.