As the Rev. Jennifer Fouse Sheorn and members of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Greenville prepare for a small information-seeking mission trip this month to Guatemala, mosquitoes have been on her mind.
Sheorn keeps track of gang violence and other crises in areas where the church’s mission group travels. Since the World Health Organization (WHO) said the mosquito-borne virus Zika is an international public health emergency, she’s added Zika to the list.
Zika has plagued Central and South America and impacted the Caribbean in the past year, infecting an estimated 3 million people. While most people infected with Zika experience no or very mild symptoms, the virus – for which there is no vaccine or treatment – can have a severe impact on pregnant women and their infants, said Dr. Erin Dickert, a maternal fetal medicine physician at Bon Secours St. Francis Health System.
“Don’t travel there if you’re pregnant,” Dickert said. “There have been Zika cases in the U.S. of people who traveled to affected areas, and one reported case of an affected baby after the mom traveled while pregnant and then returned home to Hawaii.”
Thousands of babies in Brazil and neighboring countries have been born in the past year with microcephaly (a small head), and neurological problems that could mean developmental delays or permanently disabilities. The virus is the suspected cause of these conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The problem has become so severe that El Salvador and other nations are asking their citizens to postpone pregnancy until 2018.
While Sheorn said she doesn’t believe mosquito nets will be necessary, she told her mission group to consider using the nets and strong repellents as a precaution. Their one-week mission trip is scheduled to begin on Saturday, Feb. 20.
The Fourth Presbyterian mission trip will have no pregnant women along, but Sheorn said if there were, she would ask the woman to not go or to pray about it after reading Zika information.
Mission trips are planned well in advance, which means that some churches have scrambled to find out more about Zika before members fly to impacted areas.
“The single most important thing we did was make sure there wasn’t anyone going on our mission trip who was pregnant,” said the Rev. Ludwig Weaver, pastor for Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenville. Westminster partnered with Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Mauldin to send 21 people, including a medical team, to the Dominican Republic for a mission trip last week.
“If anybody had been pregnant or trying to be pregnant, we would have urged them not to go,” Weaver said.
The South Carolina Baptist Convention in Columbia cautions pregnant women from going on mission trips to countries impacted by Zika, said Tim Rice, director for the Missions Mobilization Group.
“We’re putting together a mission trip to Central America this summer, so this will be something that we’ll cover in our training,” Rice said.