By Alwyn Rapose MD, FACP.
Division of Infectious Diseases
Reliant Medical Group
A previously little known virus is causing a great deal of concern in many areas of the world. Spread by mosquitoes, the Zika virus infection in a pregnant female may result in babies born with microcephaly, a dangerous neurological disorder. The virus has already spread to at least 22 countries, and more countries are likely to be added to the list.
Pregnant women need to be cautious
Symptoms of the virus are mild, including fever, headache, rash and possibly conjunctivitis (pink eye). Many of those infected may be unaware that they have the virus because most infections may occur without any symptoms. The main danger of the Zika virus is to pregnant women. This infection in pregnancy may be linked to increased incidence of microcephely, a disorder that results in babies born with abnormally small heads and other developmental issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning pregnant women against traveling to areas that have an outbreak of the Zika virus infection. In addition, the CDC is asking OB-Gyn physicians to review fetal ultrasounds and do maternal testing for any pregnant woman who has traveled to one of the countries listed where the Zika virus is present.
Central America, South America, and the Caribbean are main areas of concern
According to the CDC, the Zika virus is currently being locally transmitted in the following countries: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa and Venezuela. In previous years, outbreaks of Zika virus have also been recorded in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. The virus has arrived in the United States via travelers returning from these infected areas. The concern is that the United States may see more cases in the warmer months as the type of mosquitoes carrying the virus are also present in parts of the United States.
Mosquito protection measures are the best defense
Patients become infected with the virus when a mosquito bites a person with an active infection and then spreads the virus by biting other people. The CDC has also noted some documented cases of virus transmission in pregnancy, through blood transfusion, laboratory exposure and sexual contact.
There is currently no specific medication or vaccine available. The most important preventive strategy to protect oneself against the Zika virus is to avoid travel to areas that are actively infected. If you must travel to a country where Zika is present, the CDC advises strict adherence to mosquito protection measures. These include using an EPA-approved insect repellent over sunscreen, wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts that are thick enough to block a mosquito bite, as well as sleeping in rooms that are screened and can prevent the infiltration of mosquitoes and sleeping under mosquito nets. Keep in mind that the mosquito that carries the Zika virus is known to be an aggressive mosquito and prefers to bite in the daytime and also in indoor areas.
Scientists are already working on developing a vaccine against Zika, but it is believed that an effective vaccine is a few years away. That is why preventing infection needs to be a top priority. Keep in mind that although the Zika virus is commanding world-wide attention because of the alarming connection between infection and microcephaly, the virus is not expected to spread in the United States at the same rate as other countries.
If you have any concerns that you or a loved one may have been exposed to the Zika virus, please consult with your medical provider. You can learn more about the Zika virus here: www.cdc.gov/zika/