You may be hearing reports of a relatively new virus that is a potential threat to people who travel to areas where this virus has been reported. The virus is known as Zika Virus. This is a virus that is transmitted by mosquitos similar to some other viral illnesses (like dengue fever.) This has been in the news recently because it has been reported recently in Central America including Mexico, Caribbean nations, and South America. Zika was initially discovered in Africa in the 1940s but in the last year it has been reported in countries in the western hemisphere.
The disease is transmitted when a mosquito bites someone who is infected and then bites someone else and spreads the virus. Fortunately the infection is generally mild. The major danger is that the virus can infect the fetus of an infected woman and may cause a miscarriage or birth defects. The major birth defect associated with the virus is microcephaly (small and under developed head and brain).
The symptoms of infection include fever, achy joints, rash, and red eyes. Rarely Guillain-Barre syndrome has been reported. However, the majority of people who acquire the virus have minimal or no symptoms.
Currently there is no specific treatment for the disease. Treatment is focused on relieving symptoms primarily with Tylenol for fever and pain. The illness generally only lasts a few days and it occurs several days after the mosquito has bitten. Currently there is no vaccine for the virus. The best way to prevent the illness is to avoid areas where the infection may be active. This is especially true for women who are pregnant. It is reported that the mosquitos that carry the virus tend to be active during the day. Mosquito repellants and avoiding areas where mosquitos congregate is advised. Also, avoiding areas where there is stagnant or sitting water is advisable since that is where mosquitos reproduce.
Recently, infections have been reported in the United States but those cases were contracted by people visiting other countries. As of this time, there have not been cases of people bringing the virus into the United States and spreading it to others. Currently in Wisconsin the mosquitos are inactive and the type of mosquito that transmits the virus only lives in tropical areas. So the risk of contracting this virus without traveling to a tropical area is almost zero. However, the experts are concerned that this is a potential problem in southern parts of the United States. If you have not heard about Zika virus already, I suspect you will be seeing reports in the news. One report I saw referring to the outbreak in Brazil indicated that the virus has “explosive pandemic potential.” This type of reporting is sensationalizing what is known about the virus. The CDC acknowledges that there is much to learn about the Zika virus and its potential danger.
For the time being it seems the best advice is to take precautions to try to avoid mosquitos if traveling to areas where the Zika virus has been reported. This is especially true for women who are pregnant or think they may be pregnant. Pregnant women are encouraged to report travel to these areas to their provider. Also, it is advised that you report symptoms to your provider if you become sick during or shortly after traveling to one of these areas. The disease would be diagnosed by blood tests sent to the CDC. This would be done primarily for tracking the illness since there is no specific treatment.
The Zika virus is something to be aware of and currently pregnant women should take precautions if traveling to the areas noted above. There is still much to learn about this virus. Stay tuned and stay healthy my friends.
By: P. Michael Shattuck, M.D. – Community Health Network Family Physician