First discovered in 1947 in the Zika forest of Uganda, Africa, the Zika virus more recently became a concern in other parts of the world including South and Central America, the U.S. and even locally here in Texas.
Most of the population is not significantly impacted by Zika infections; however, others can incur serious ramifications.
What are the symptoms and risks of Zika virus?
Mild to no discomfort. For most people, the Zika virus poses little threat. Many people infected by the virus will have no symptoms or mild symptoms that last several days to a week. Some infected persons may experience a fever, rash, headache, joint pain, muscle pain or bloodshot eyes.
Birth defects. Zika infection during pregnancy is linked to babies born with microcephaly – a disorder characterized by a smaller-than-normal head circumference, brain deformities and associated neurological defects. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported other birth defects and abnormalities, associated with fetuses infected with Zika.
Immune system disease. The CDC has confirmed a connection between the infection of Zika virus and Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). GBS is a rare, post-infection disorder that causes a person's immune system to attack nerve cells leading to muscle weakness and, sometimes, paralysis. Brazil, one of the countries hit hardest by Zika has reported an increased number of people affected by GBS. Overall, only a small proportion of people infected with Zika virus get GBS.
How is Zika virus spread?
Mosquitoes. The Zika virus is most often spread to people through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected with the Zika virus when they feed on a person already infected with the virus. This creates a cycle of transmitting the virus between people and mosquitoes.
Sexual activity. Zika is also transmitted through sex from a person who has Zika to his/her partners. It can be passed this way, even if the infected person does not have symptoms at the time.
Pregnant women. Most importantly, it can be spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn fetus and result in serious birth defects.
How can the virus be prevented?
For the general population:
- Avoid potential infection by following CDC's recommendations to postpone travel to affected countries. See travel notices.
- If you must travel to an area with reported Zika cases, do your best to prevent mosquito bites by using insect repellent (use EPA-registered for safety and effectiveness); wear light-colored clothes that cover most of your body; use physical barriers like closing windows, doors and screens; use mosquito nets; and remove standing water in outdoor containers like tires, buckets, planters, birdbaths, etc.
For pregnant women:
- If your partner travels to an affected area, avoid sex or use condoms for the duration of your pregnancy.
- If you have traveled to a Zika-affected area, talk to your doctor – especially if you developed any symptoms in the two weeks following your trip. Your doctor may want to perform a blood test and monitor your baby's development through ultrasound.
Is there treatment or a vaccine for Zika virus?
If you or your child develop symptoms, treatment includes rest, fluids to prevent dehydration, and fever and pain reducing medications like acetaminophen.
"There are vaccines being developed that may be ready in the future but the challenge would be to look at their effectiveness in the most critical population – pregnant women," explains Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children's Health℠. "There is always a concern about immunizing pregnant women with experimental vaccines, so I think we're still many years from an approved vaccine."
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