The Zika virus is “spreading explosively” the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed this past week. Turn to any news source and you’ll be met with startling headlines about a “global emergency” and “a bigger threat than Ebola” among others. Rewind to just two years ago, and we were just beginning to deal with the Ebola virus pandemic in West Africa. Is the Zika virus threatening to emerge as the next global pandemic? What is the Zika virus and just how concerned should you be? Let’s take a look…

What Is The Zika Virus?

Zika is a virus related to some other viruses you have likely heard of such as dengue and West Nile. When infected, the resulting illness is referred to as Zika fever, which can be comparable to a mild case of dengue fever. This virus derives it’s name from the Zika forest in Uganda where it was first discovered in a monkey in 1947. The Zika virus is primarily carried by a type of mosquito called Aedes aegypti and transmitted to other organisms through the bite of the mosquito. Although a more rare occurrence, cases have been reported of the virus being transmitted from person-to-person in instances of blood transfusions or sexual contact.

Zika Virus Symptoms

The incubation period for the Zika virus is between 2 and 7 days. Only approximately 1 in 5 people exposed to the virus will become ill, meaning 80% of people exposed to the virus will be asymptomatic and not even know they were infected. Symptoms that may present include: fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis (also commonly known as ‘pinkeye’), headache, and muscle and joint pain. Most people who become ill will only experience mild symptoms and will be sick for several days to a week. Severe hospitalizations and deaths are extremely rare. The very young, the elderly, and those with preexisting conditions are at a higher risk for neurological and autoimmune complications from an infection, such as Guillain–Barré syndrome.

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How Is Zika Fever Diagnosed?

Initially, the diagnosis for Zika fever is clinical symptoms. Once an infection is suspected, a positive diagnosis is confirmed with a blood test.

What Treatment Or Vaccines Are Available For The Zika Virus?

There are currently no vaccines or medications available to cure or treat infection from the Zika virus. Once a patient has been confirmed with the diagnosis, the best course of treatment is to rest and stay hydrated. To help relieve any pain or a fever, acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be taken; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns not to take aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen) until dengue fever can be ruled out to reduce the risk of hemorrhaging (bleeding).

Pregnancy And The Zika Virus

With the majority of people only experiencing mild symptoms to none at all, the primary reason the Zika virus is generating headlines around the world is a possible connection between the virus and microcephaly (my-kroh-SEF-uh-lee). Microcephaly is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder affecting the development of the brain in babies. The brain will develop abnormally in the womb or will not grow as it should after birth, resulting in the child’s head being significantly smaller than other children of the same age and gender. There is growing concern that pregnant women and their babies are at a higher risk for serious health complications stemming from exposure to the Zika virus. At this point, there have not been enough studies to definitively connect Zika to microcephaly; however, there is growing evidence suggesting a correlation between the two.

Brazil Is At The Epicenter Of The Current Zika Pandemic

Until this past fall, Brazil only reported about 150 cases of microcephaly each year. Suddenly, the country is investigating thousands of possible cases. Dr. Vanessa Van Der Linden, a neurologist in Recife who has her own private practice and works at a local public hospital, told the New York Times, she has “never witnessed anything like it.” In the last six months, she has examined nearly 60 cases, which is 10 times the number of cases she came across in previous years. The alarming increase in microcephaly cases is spiraling into a health crisis within Brazil, and health experts strongly believe Zika is to blame.

Global leaders and health officials from around the world are concerned about Brazil’s ability to contain and handle the Zika pandemic within the country. With many Brazilians already poverty-stricken, the dramatic plunge in commodity prices over the last couple years has also hit the Brazilian economy hard. This leaves both the people of Brazil and the government of Brazil with fewer resources to deal with the pandemic. With Brazil preparing to host the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics and the country already serving as a major global tourism destination, the threat of the virus rapidly spreading outside of Brazil is very real and already happening.

The Zika Virus Is Spreading Rapidly

Currently, infections are most prevalent in Brazil, where an estimated one-million cases have been reported. However, the reach of the virus is continuing to expand at a frightening pace. Zika infections have now been reported in most of South America and Central America as well as in many parts of the Caribbean. Cases have also been reported by travelers returning to Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States as well as other countries around the world. There is a high likelihood that the Zika virus will begin to take root in the United States, especially when temperatures begin to warm in many parts of the country and mosquito populations begin to swell. U.S. health officials are particularly concerned about areas along the Gulf Coast.

But, why all of a sudden is the Western Hemisphere being plagued by the Zika virus? Yes, we have known about the virus for decades, but it was primarily isolated to Africa and small island nations between Africa and Asia. Yap Island in Micronesia faced an outbreak of Zika in 2007, and the virus has continued to cross the Pacific Ocean, reaching French Polynesia in 2014. The theory is the virus spread from French Polynesia to South America when Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup. The virus is now spreading swiftly throughout the Americas and the Caribbean due to robust populations of the Aedes mosquito in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, only Canada and continental Chile do not have Aedes mosquitoes.

Should You Avoid Traveling?

While the World Health Organization has not issued any travel advisories yet, the US-based CDC publishes Travel Health Notices to inform travelers of potential health concerns in specific destinations. These notices are classified into three distinct categories: Watch Level 1 – Practice Usual Precautions, Alert Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions, and Warning Level 3 – Avoid Nonessential Travel. Currently, Alert Level 2 Travel Health Notices have been issued for South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Cape Verde, Samoa, and Mexico. The notices declare that local populations of mosquitoes have been infected with the Zika virus and are spreading it to people, and when traveling to these destinations, you should take enhanced precautions and avoid areas known to be hotbeds for mosquitoes.

Given the possible connection between the Zika virus and birth defects as well as a lack of vaccinations or medications, the CDC is also recommending pregnant women seriously consider postponing their travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmissions. If travel cannot be postponed, enhanced precautions to avoid any contact with mosquitoes should be taken. Remember, mosquitoes will bite indoors as well as outdoors.

Can The Zika Virus Be Stopped From Spreading?

With no medications available to treat the Zika virus, containing the spread of the virus is the best course of action. Vaccinations are the best tool to prevent a virus from spreading. Unfortunately, without a vaccine already developed, it will be years before one is developed and can be produced on a mass scale. At this point, the only way to stop the Zika virus from spreading is to target the carriers — mosquitoes. It is a daunting task to contain a virus when humans are the carrier, but with mosquitoes being the carriers for Zika, it would seem to be an impossible task to contain them. Certainly, in infected areas, pesticides can be used in an attempt to eradicate the mosquitoes, but the effectiveness of this approach is debatable given the vast number of these resilient insects.

With government and non-government organizations not being able to render much help, your first line of defense in preventing being infected with the Zika virus should be to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Depending upon the area and type of climate you live in, this can be easy or more difficult. The Aedes mosquito is most active during the daylight hours, is aggressive, and will bite you outdoors AND indoors. You can take the following precautions to minimize your risk of being bitten:

  • Wear light-colored long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Interestingly, mosquitoes are more attracted to dark-colored clothing.
  • Remain in rooms with window and door screens to prevent mosquitoes from gaining access.
  • Stay away from stagnant pools of water, which serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes. These can be lakes and ponds, but they can also be abandoned swimming pools or even buckets and flower pots with a little water.
  • When sleeping, do so underneath the cover of a mosquito net.
  • Use EPA-registered insect repellents. There are non-toxic versions of insect repellents available.
  • If you have a baby or small child, make sure you take the same steps for them. You can also cover cribs, strollers, and baby carriers with mosquito netting.

The Bottom Line On The Zika Virus

Over the coming weeks and months, expect to hear a lot more about the Zika virus. It’s spreading rapidly, affecting large areas of people, and will likely spread to the United States in the very near future. The virus is not nearly as deadly as Ebola and most people should not be too concerned with becoming sick. However, until more is understood about the effects the Zika virus is having on pregnant women and their babies, we should be worried and remain vigilant. A widespread virus attacking large numbers of the youngest and most vulnerable among us should be of dire concern to all of us.

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