Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus that is currently causing a large outbreak in Brazil and 20 other countries in Latin America. In the past few years, it was also associated with outbreaks in French Polynesia and Micronesia. The illness can simply be a fever, with joint pain that may last up to one week. There have been some cases of the neurologic disease – Guillain-Barre syndrome – associated with the infection. Those most serious affected by this new emerging disease is unborn children. When pregnant mothers, especially in their first or second trimester, are infected with Zika virus, the infection can be transmitted to the fetus causing poor outcomes in the babies. Specifically, Zika virus is associated with infants born with unusually small heads (also known as microcephaly) and its associated brain damage. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it an international public health emergency in order to determine how to control this outbreak.
How does one get the Zika virus?
A person gets infected by being bitten by a mosquito that carries the Zika virus. It is transmitted by a type of mosquito called Aedes aegypti. It is the same mosquito that carries Dengue Fever. Thus far in the United States, only travel-associated cases have been identified. We also know that there have been cases in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic. Infectious disease and public health specialists suspect we will see cases originating in the U.S. since the mosquito that carries Zika virus is found throughout the Southeast.
What are the symptoms of the Zika virus?
Zika virus causes a mild fever, rash, headache, joint pain and sometimes red eyes, also known as conjunctivitis. It occurs in people who have travelled to affected areas and exposed to mosquitoes with Zika virus. It is estimated that one in 5 people infected with Zika virus become ill, thus the majority have no symptoms. The illness usually starts 3-12 days after exposure, and the symptoms can last 2-7 days. If pregnant woman travels to countries affected by Zika virus, then she will have a 50 to 80 percent chance of contracting a very mild disease, but it is still unclear if the unborn child will automatically be infected with the virus. Much more information is still being identified as to how pregnant woman are the most at risk for serious infections to their unborn child.
What is the treatment for Zika?
Treatment is generally symptomatic care, which includes plenty of rest, staying hydrated and, if needed, the use of acetaminophen for high fevers. There are no specific antiviral treatments available for Zika virus. Aspirin and ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication is to be avoided until other mosquito borne illnesses, like Dengue Fever, can be ruled out.
What are my chances of getting the Zika virus?
Depending on where you travel and the exposure to mosquitos, there is a chance of becoming infected with Zika virus. If one traveled to an affected country such as Brazil, or Honduras and did not wear mosquito repellant, there is a high chance of getting the disease. However, only 20 percent of those who get infected have symptoms. The greatest risk that this infection poses is to pregnant woman travelling to affected countries. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that woman who are pregnant postpone traveling to affected countries.
What can I do to prevent becoming infected?
If you travel to a country that is known to have Zika virus, it is important to take the proper precautions to minimize risk of getting bitten by mosquitos. We recommend using mosquito repellant with at least a 20 percent concentration of the active agent DEET. In addition, spray clothing with 0.5 percent permethrin spray. The permethrin spray lasts four to six weeks or up to 10 washings. It is important to use multiple applications of the mosquito repellent, especially if one is perspiring. Wear long sleeves, pants or skirts.
Where can I get help?
It is important to seek pre-travel counseling and immunization for your upcoming itinerary to see if your area of travel is affected by Zika virus or other mosquito borne illnesses like malaria, for which there is preventative medications. The Regional Center for Infectious Diseases Travel Clinic is available at 336-832-3278.
About the Author
|Dr. Cynthia B. Snider|
Cynthia B. Snider, MD, MPH