Update: The number of Zika case in the United States has grown to 346, all in people who have traveled to Zika-prone countries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Officials with the CDC are warning the virus is “scarier than initially thought” with links to a broader array of birth defects throughout a longer period of pregnancy. Although the Zika virus hasn't been transmitted so far by moquitoes in the U.S., this could change as warmer weather brings the hatching of the types of mosquitoes that spread the virus.
You may have noticed a sudden spike of information in the news lately about the Zika virus, a virus whose infection rates seem to have exploded in South America. There have now been hundreds of confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, including Texas. Knowing what the virus is capable of and what you can do to prevent it is important.
Infection Happens Via Mosquitoes
The Zika virus is transmitted through mosquitoes after a mosquito bites an infected person and then bites someone else, similar to illnesses like dengue fever or West Nile virus which are called arboviruses. Like other arboviruses, there is potential for Zika to be transmitted through blood transfusion, and there is evidence that the virus can be transmitted through sexual contact. The virus is not new. It is named after the Zika Forest region of Uganda, where it was found in 1947.
Pregnant Women Have Higher Risk
For the average person, an infection may induce flu-like symptoms such as a fever, mild muscle aches and joint pain in addition to a skin rash and conjunctivitis. Symptoms typically begin between a few days to a week after infection.
There are more serious risks for women who are pregnant. The Zika virus seems to have the biggest impact on babies born to women who are infected, as an unusually high number of infants born with microcephaly were reported in areas where the virus was quickly spreading. Microcephaly is diagnosed with an infant’s head is much smaller than normal. This is typically linked to decreased brain function. There is also evidence that the Zika virus is linked to the causation of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a condition that causes slow paralysis. Patients typically overcome GBS, but there are some rare cases that cause fatality.
How to Avoid Infection
To put it simply, the best thing you can do to avoid infection is to do everything you know to do to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes. The preventive measures are largely the same as the measures you use to avoid West Nile. Avoid being outside from dusk until dawn, and if you have to be outside at any time, use a mosquito spray with a high DEET content. Be sure you remove potential mosquito breeding grounds from around your home. Because mosquitoes lay eggs in standing water, this means to make sure you don’t have any pots, bird baths, old tires, ponds or any other type of receptacle that holds water for long periods of time out around your home. If you do, make sure they are over turned or removed completely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued a travel warning to people who may be visiting affected areas, such as South America, Central America or Caribbean Islands. Women who are pregnant are being urged not to travel to these areas. As there is currently no vaccine, prevention up front is going to be the best way to stay safe from the Zika virus.
Finally, if you’ve recently traveled and are feeling any of the symptoms of the Zika virus, make sure to alert your primary care physician immediately.
Dr. Suma Manjunath is the Managing Physician for the Travel Medicineclinics in Kelsey Seybold Clinic. She is certified in the field of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene by the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). She’s a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Pearland Clinic.