The recent reports of the increase in cases of the mosquito-spread Zika virus are causing alarm in the Americas. Dr. Vanya Gant, PhD, FRCP FRCPath, a GeoBlue-contracted provider specializing in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, has provided 10 important facts about the current Zika virus outbreak and how it could impact you.
So what is the Zika virus?
Zika virus occurs in a large number of tropical countries, and there are currently large outbreaks in Latin America and the Caribbean, and additional outbreaks in the Cape Verde islands off of Africa, and several Pacific islands, and now in certain parts of South Florida. People get Zika virus when they get bitten by mosquitoes carrying it; other viruses such as Dengue and Malaria are passed on the same way. There is currently no vaccine available.
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How do I know I am infected?
If you get bitten by mosquitoes, a few days later, Zika virus may infect you. The infection may be very mild, and in many people, will go unnoticed. Some people will, however, get symptoms, not unlike having a mild version of the flu: a low fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, as well as red eyes and a non-itchy flat rash.
Why the big splash then?
Zika virus has spread very considerably in Brazil for quite a while; the worry is that this has been accompanied by a large and as yet unexplained increase in the number of babies born with a condition called “microcephaly” – literally meaning “small brain”, which means that normal brain development in the womb has stopped, and that these children’s brains are much smaller than they should be at birth. It has yet to be determined how strong the link is between this virus and this devastating congenital abnormality. Furthermore, there are some indications that Zika infection (along with other infections) may trigger a neurological disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can vary in severity from mild symptoms to life threatening paralysis. This link also remains to be proven.
Can the disease be imported?
Zika virus infection is transmitted primarily by mosquitoes, and also by secual contact. Zika is prevalent in countries where the transmitting mosquitos live, which include Africa, Asia, the Americas and parts of southern Europe. There are, however, reports of sexual transmission by men who became ill with Zika. It is not yet known if men who become infected but are asymptomatic can pass Zika to their sexual partner.
Can Zika spread from human to human?
With sexual contact, Zika can be found in semen for several weeks after recovery from infection. Travellers to regions where Zika is known to circulate should take precautions and use condoms, which are likely to be effective if used correctly and consistently. Men returning from Zika virus areas should use a condom with a female partner at risk of pregnancy, whether planned or not. The UK has been the first country to recommend that men should use condoms for 28 days if they have had no symptoms; and 6 months after recovery from proven Zika infection.
Is it safe to travel to Brazil and other affected countries?
The world’s best health authorities are working on what this might mean for travelers to this region of the world. This is especially important for those residing in or near an affected country. People who get infected with Zika virus have a mild illness, which resolves in a few days; many won’t even know they’’ve got the virus. The problem relates to people who are pregnant; the extent of the risk of developing Guillain-Barré syndrome after infection remains to be determined.
What about the Olympics?
The Rio Olympics and Paralympics (5 – 21 August; 7 – 18 September) will represent one of the biggest mass gathering events ever for South America. Thankfully, this will be in Brazil’s cooler months; and we know that all mosquito-borne diseases are very low there during this period. The Brazilian authorities are working hard on a new set of mosquito control measures. The exact amount of risk is considered low – but not calculated yet.
What’s the link with pregnancy?
While a clear link between birth abnormalities and Zika virus infection in pregnancy has yet to be established, it seems self-evident that pregnant women should consider avoiding travel to areas where there is Zika virus. If travel is unavoidable, the key is an excellent anti-mosquito regimen, which could include wearing long sleeves, using insect repellent containing DEET and sleeping under insecticide-impregnated bed nets. Discuss the best protocols for you with your Obstetrician. Currently we have nothing else to fight this virus; there’s no vaccine and there’s no other treatment that can prevent a person developing Zika.
Can Zika virus be transmitted to others?
Zika virus infection is transmitted by mosquitoes. It can only be passed on in countries where the transmitting mosquito lives, which include Africa, Asia, the Americas and parts of southern Europe. It’s clear that person-to-person transmission is very unlikely – but as reported recently, sexual transmission might be possible.
I’m pregnant and have recently visited an affected area – what should I do?
Even if you are well, you should discuss this with your Obstetrician. They will be able to advise further about the risks, although this is an area where we are learning more every day, and the full facts are not yet known. It’s likely that what your doctors will decide to do is keep an extra close eye on you throughout your pregnancy, to make sure that all is well. If you have recently come back from an affected area and had, or have, symptoms suggesting a viral illness within the last 2-3 weeks, you should actively seek medical advice and state that you wish to be tested for Zika.
What are the tests for Zika virus infection?
There are blood and urine tests for Zika virus, but they can only be done up to 2-3 weeks after developing symptoms. The blood test in true infection is likely to be positive early on the illness; the urine test may pick the virus up some weeks later. There is no test currently available for people who have always remained well, or if the symptoms were more than 2-3 weeks ago.
Where can I find the latest information?
Find out more information about the situation:
Traveling abroad for work, study, vacation or to live? Travel Medical Insurance with GeoBlue Worldwide.
GeoBlue has dedicated, multilingual resources available 24/7 for members in need of medical care and assistance while visiting any of the areas where there has been an outbreak of Zika virus.
Questions or more information?