Zika virus has been making headlines with increasing frequency of late But what is it really, and are you at risk?
Officials in several countries including El Salvador and the Philippines have issued an unprecedented warning, urging women of childbearing age to avoid getting pregnant until 2018 in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus which has been linked to microcephaly, a condition which results in stunted brain and head growth and developmental delay.
Zika is spread by the Aedes species of mosquito, which also brought mankind the dengue and chikungunya viruses. These hardy bugs can survive indoors and out, and the World Health Organization has warned that every country in the Americas with the exception of Canada and continental Chile are havens for the insects.
Virologists have been unable to determine exactly how the virus was able to migrate from Uganda in the 1940s, or indeed how it has been able to spread so quickly now. Twenty-one countries and territories have reported Zika cases since the outbreak first hit the region in May 2015.
How will you know if you've been infected by Zika? You might not, ever. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 1 in 5 people infected will ever show any symptoms.
Those who are symptomatic of Zika rarely exhibit conditions severe enough to require any hospitalization. Symptoms include headache, fever, conjunctivitis, vomiting, rash, joint pain and muscle pain -- all of which can last up to a week.
Prior to recent Zika outbreaks there have been reports of Zika patients developing the serious auto-immune disorder Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Researchers are also currently investigating a possible connection between maternal Zika infection and infant microcephaly. This is a neurological condition wherein a baby's head is much smaller than normal, and can can contribute to seizures, mental retardation and other health issues. Since October 2015, Brazil has seen an increase in microcephalic births by a factor of ten, and while Zika virus is suspected, it has not been definitively linked to microcephaly.
Although there is no treatment, the CDC recommends that Zika patients rest, increase their fluid intake, and use medications such as acetaminophen for fever relief. They are recommending against aspirin use until dengue fever has absolutely been ruled out, due to the risk of hemorrhage.
With no vaccine yet available, we must all be diligent to both avoid the virus, and avoid spreading it if there is a chance we might have contracted it. Everything you might use to avoid being bitten by your ordinary garden variety mosquito will work against the Aedes species. That includes mosquito netting, avoiding areas with standing water, and mosquito repellent. The CDC recommends using products that contain IR335, picaridin, or DEET. Once bitten and having contracted Zika, it is imperative to avoid being bitten by another mosquito during the first week of infection, to prevent the further spread of the disease.
The CDC is recommending that pregnant women avoid travel to Zika “hot spots” as efforts are underway to formulate a vaccine, which some experts predict could be at least three years away.
If travel to any of these countries is unavoidable during the current crisis, please discuss your visit with a health care professional to make sure you have the most up-to-date information available.