The Zika virus has been in the news a great deal lately, particularly since the World Health Organization declared the virus to be a global health emergency in the same category as the Ebola virus. The virus was first detected in rhesus monkeys living in Uganda’s Zika forest in 1947. It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Prior to 2015, Zika virus outbreaks have occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In May of last year, the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infections in Brazil. There has been one case of the virus sexually transmitted from a man who returned from Venezuela. Other cases have been reported in travelers who have visited South and Central America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also reported locally transmitted cases of the virus in Puerto Rico.
The Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, the same mosquito responsible for the dengue and chikungunya viruses and yellow fever. The Aedes aegypti mosquito lives in tropical and subtropical climates, which is why experts are worried that Zika could spread across North America, Africa, India and China. These mosquitoes typically lay eggs in and near standing water in things like buckets, bowls and vases. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites. A mother already infected with the Zika virus near the time of delivery can pass on the virus to her newborn around the time of birth, but this is rare. Instances of the virus being spread through blood transfusion and sexual contact have also been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Can be painful
The Zika virus, which is transmitted through infected mosquitoes, is typically a mild, self-limited illness and is not fatal except in rare cases but it can be painful. About one in five people who become infected with the virus become ill. The incubation period, the time from which a person becomes infected to the time where they begin to display symptoms, is roughly two weeks. The symptoms, fever, joint pain and headache, are usually mild and last from several days to a week. Dr. Robert Bradsher, director of UAMS’ Infectious Diseases Division, says that since there is no vaccine for the virus, the only option for infected individuals is to treat the symptoms. Anyone who has visited an area where Zika is found and develops the symptoms should contact their health care provider. Dr. Bradsher says treating the disease usually involves getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids to prevent dehydration and taking acetaminophen for fever and pain.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month issued a travel warning for pregnant women and those who want to get pregnant regarding the Zika virus. The CDC reported that thousands of babies born in Brazil last year had microcephaly, a disorder associated with Zika exposure. Microcephaly is a condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than expected. During pregnancy, a baby’s head grows because the baby’s brain grows. Microcephaly can occur because a baby’s brain has not developed properly during pregnancy or has stopped growing after birth, which results in a smaller head size. Microcephaly can cause problems like hearing loss, seizures, developmental delays and intellectual disabilities. Because of the risk of exposure, the CDC urged women to postpone travel to 14 countries and areas where the virus has been reported, including Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
There is no vaccine or medication currently available to treat the Zika virus so prevention is important in preventing the spread of the mosquito-borne illness. Be aware that the mosquitoes that carry the virus bite mostly during the daytime and are most active around sunrise and sunset. If you are travelling to a country such as Brazil or Costa Rica, where outbreaks of the virus have been reported, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. And stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to always read the directions on any insect repellants and to follow the instructions to the letter. Be sure to reapply the repellant as directed and, if you are using sunscreen, apply the sunscreen before applying the insect repellant. It’s also important to empty containers like buckets or tires that can contain water to avoid creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.