Zika virus has been making news headlines for the past several months. It’s important for the public to know what the virus is, how it spreads and the effects this disease has on its victims. It’s also important to note that people rarely die of Zika.
Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika forest in Uganda. In 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected and since then, outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Before 2007, at least 14 cases of Zika had been documented, although other cases were likely to have occurred and were not reported. Because the symptoms of Zika are similar to those of many other diseases, many cases may not have been recognized.
The disease is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The most common symptoms of Zika include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. Although the illness is usually mild and people don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, a mother already infected with Zika virus near the time of delivery can pass on the virus to her newborn around the time of birth.
Unfortunately, no vaccine exists to prevent Zika virus disease. It is nearly impossible to completely prevent mosquito bites, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised pregnant women to avoid going to regions where Zika is being transmitted. The CDC also recommends that women who are thinking of becoming pregnant consult their doctors before traveling.
The CDC’s travel alert list has continued to expand and now includes 37 countries or territories, most of them in the Americas. If you must travel to these Zika-infected areas, you are advised to avoid or minimize mosquito bites by staying in screened or air-conditioned rooms, sleeping under mosquito nets, wearing insect repellent at all times and wearing long pants, long sleeves, shoes and hats.
The possibility that the Zika virus causes microcephaly – unusually small heads often accompanied by brain damage – emerged only in October 2015 when physicians in northern Brazil noticed a surge in babies with this condition. These physicians were stunned to learn that throughout all of 2015 and up to the present, there have been more than 4,000 total new microcephaly cases that were suspected to be caused by Zika — more than 20 times higher than the numbers in prior years. The CDC has established a registry to track pregnant U.S. women who have a lab-confirmed Zika virus infection, as well as their infants.
Zika virus can also be spread by a man to his sexual partners. In known cases of likely sexual transmission, the men had Zika symptoms, but the virus can be transmitted before, during and after symptoms develop. Zika is present in semen longer than blood.
The CDC recently said “We have already seen the Zika virus in travelers returning from places where Zika is spreading, including, sadly, one woman in Hawaii who delivered an infant with microcephaly after being infected with the virus in Brazil last year. We will certainly see more travelers returning to the United States with Zika after being infected in parts of the world where the virus is spreading. But the big question many people have is whether Zika will spread widely within the United States.”
For more detailed information on Zika virus, please visit the CDC’s website. To find a pediatrician or primary care physician, please call 317.880.8687.