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This viral illness, commonly observed in livestock in sub-Saharan Africa, is not new. That said, new research published in the journal Science Advances, which looked at rats infected with the virus, showed that pregnant rats with Rift Valley fever were more likely to die than nonpregnant infected rats. Their babies were also highly likely to die from the disease.
Additional testing on human placental tissue found that Rift Valley fever can easily infect the placenta, allowing it to reach the developing fetus. This could make it even more dangerous to pregnant women than the Zika virus, the researchers concluded.
How worried should you be about Rift Valley fever?
First, the good news:
- Rift Valley fever is currently not present in the United States or in most of the world. It's found mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. Although humans do get the disease, it primarily targets livestock such as cows, buffalo, and sheep.
- Although Rift Valley fever can be spread by mosquitoes, most people who get the virus contract it by coming into contact with the blood or organs of infected animals, according to the World Health Organization. This means that the people most at risk for getting Rift Valley fever – at least at present – are herders, farmers, slaughterhouse workers, and veterinarians in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, not pregnant women living in North America.
- Rift Valley fever is not a new virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it's been around since at least 1910.
- Health authorities are already on the alert about this virus, in case it spreads. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations plans to put almost $50 million toward research to develop a vaccine against Rift Valley fever and another problematic disease, chikungunya.
Now, the bad news:
- Rift Valley fever can be dangerous if you get it. Although symptoms are usually mild, up to 1 in 10 people develops serious eye problems, brain inflammation, or hemorrhagic fever, according to the CDC. There are also reports of babies born to women infected by the virus having birth defects and dying.
- Health experts fear the virus could spread. Lead study author Amy Hartman told the New York Times that climate change is expanding the geographic reach of mosquitoes capable of transmitting the disease. The World Health Organization says Rift Valley fever is a potential public health emergency.
What does all this mean for you? If you live in the United States, there's certainly no need to panic, since you're unlikely to get infected. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to take steps to prevent mosquito bites, especially if you're pregnant.
Also, if you travel overseas, it's wise to stay vigilant about disease outbreaks, including those for Rift Valley fever, so you can avoid high-risk areas and take extra precautions. For reference, the CDC publishes a current outbreaks list on its website.
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