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Zika Virus Explained

February 1st, 2016  |  The Blog

There is something new to worry about. The Zika virus has reared its head as a mosquito-borne illness. It is important to learn the facts to prevent the spread of this virus, especially among pregnant women.

Zika Virus 101

Zika virus is spread by the Aedes species of mosquito, which is the same carrier of the dengue and chikungunya viruses. Currently, there are two Aedes species responsible for the Zika virus, Aedes albopictus or the Asian Tiger mosquito and the Aedes aegypti.

The mosquitos infect their prey during the daylight hours, which is different from other mosquito-borne viruses that are most often spread during dusk and dawn hours.

Zika Symptoms

The Zika virus illness lasts about one week but the true concern is the link to potential birth defects like microcephaly. Microcephaly is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which an infant’s head fails to grow while the facial features continue to develop at a normal rate. These babies often have delays in movement and speech, mental retardation, dwarfism, seizures and hyperactivity.

Brazil has experienced an alarming ten-fold increase in cases of microcephaly since October 2015. Some cases have been confirmed to be the result of Zika and others have been negative for the virus.

While there is a link between the Zika virus and microcephaly being investigated, at this time, the virus is not thought to be transmitted via breastfeeding.

Many people who are exposed to and infected with the virus do not show any overt symptoms. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 infected people develop symptoms of Zika. The illness is typically confirmed by a blood test. There is usually no need for hospitalization with the Zika virus and even rarer cases result in death. A rare case evolves into Guillain-Barr syndrome, which is a serious and potentially fatal autoimmune disorder.

The symptoms of Zika virus include:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pain
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Pain behind the eyes
  • Vomiting

Treatment of the Virus

There is currently no treatment for Zika and there is no vaccine available. The best advice is preventing mosquito bites. Comfort measures for those infected with the virus include:

  • Rest
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Pain and fever control with acetaminophen (ASA and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be avoided until dengue fever is ruled out because of the increased risk of hemorrhage)

Controlling the Virus

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a level 2 travel alert on January 22, 2016 for anyone traveling to areas affected by the Zika virus. The level 2 travel alert recommends practicing enhanced precautions. Pregnant women should avoid travel to these areas. The virus is typically found in tropical climates. The areas affected include:

  • Central and South America: Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela
  • Caribbean: Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Martin
  • Oceana: Samoa
  • Africa: Cape Verde

U.S. Concerns

The Aedes species of mosquitos is found around the world with a concentration in tropical areas. Areas of concern in the U.S. are tropical-like climates like Houston and New Orleans. Places with wet lowlands, warm temperatures and higher level of poverty are the main focus of concern by healthcare authorities.

Other Concerns

Zika virus is confirmed to be transmitted by infected mosquitos but another theory is that it can also be spread via sexual contact or through the infected blood of an affected patient. There is one confirmed case of spread through sexual contact, according to the CDC.

Prevention Advice

The typical avoidance is important to prevent mosquito bites. The CDC recommends:

  • Use insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin or IR335
  • Wear long-sleeved, long-legged clothing
  • Use window and door screens
  • Disperse standing water
  • Use mosquito bed netting, if indicated

Zika virus is a potential threat to the Americas. Infectious disease experts are on alert for the spread of the mosquito-borne illness, especially among the pregnant population.

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