This year, a small annoyance – the mosquito – has become a tiny menace. The Zika virus has traveled from Uganda to South America, and finally north into the United States. It poses a threat to anyone who is bitten by an infected mosquito – or anyone who comes in contact with a bite victim.
The group facing the greatest peril is unborn children who can face serious birth defects if their mothers are infected with the virus. But Zika can have real effects on adults as well.
While news reports about the virus have increased in recent months, the panic about Zika’s spread is not always well-informed. With that in mind, Global Rescue physicians and Medical Operations personnel offer some important facts and advice for anyone traveling to, or living in, an area where Zika has been found.
What is Zika?
Zika virus disease is an acute viral illness of humans transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes species (Ae. aegypti and Ae.albopictus) mosquito that has previously fed on an infected person. Zika virus can also be transmitted from mother to fetus, through sexual contact and through blood transfusions.
The virus was discovered in 1947 in Zika Forest, Uganda, where it was found in the Rhesus monkey population and the Aedes africanus mosquito. The first humans infected with Zika virus disease were reported in the early 1950’s in Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania. The virus remained endemic to parts of Africa and Asia, until an outbreak on Yap Island and French Polynesia in the South Pacific in 2007 and 2013, respectively.
In October 2015, the CDC published reports from the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil that confirmed cases of Zika virus disease in Camaçari, Bahia, Brazil. Further reports from Brazil in May 2015 reported that pregnant women who became infected with Zika virus disease had an increased risk of birth defects such as microcephaly.
The first case of Zika virus-related microcephaly in the US was reported in Oahu, Hawaii. The infant’s mother had lived in Brazil during her pregnancy and the infant was likely infected within the womb, as hypothesized by both Hawaiian Department of Health officials and the CDC.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include sudden fever with rash, joint and body pain, headache and conjunctivitis. Symptoms are usually mild and last from several days to a week. Approximately one in five people infected with the Zika virus will develop symptoms.
Women who are infected with the Zika virus who are pregnant, or become pregnant while the virus is still in their system, are at an increased risk of birth defects – including absent or poorly developed brain structures, defects of the eye, hearing deficits, impaired growth and microcephaly, an abnormal smallness of a newborn’s head associated with incomplete neurological development. There is also emerging evidence to suggest maternal-fetal transmission may occur during pregnancy or at the time of delivery. At present, numerous studies are being conducted to determine the full extent of the virus’ effect on both the developing fetus and babies after birth.
Where is Zika currently found?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following have active Zika virus transmission:
Americas: Anguilla, Antigua, Argentina, Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Belize, Bolivia, Bonaire, Brazil, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Saba, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Eustasius, Sint Maarten, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, USVI and Venezuela.
Oceania/Pacific Islands: America Samoa, Fiji, Kosrae (Micronesia), Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga. Africa: Cape Verde
What can I do to protect myself if I’m in an area where Zika is found?
There is currently no vaccine or medication against Zika virus disease, meaning the best protection is preventative measures. The most important measure is avoiding the Aedes species of mosquito that transmits Zika virus, which bites during the early morning and dusk hours.
Some other tips:
Treat your clothing with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated clothing. People who use bug spray that contains DEET and who treat their clothing separately with permethrin have the lowest risk of mosquito bites.
Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and long socks with closed toe shoes. The legs, ankles and feet are bitten 80 percent more frequently than the rest of the body. Additionally, when possible, wear white clothing. People wearing bright, floral, or black shirts are more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes.
When inside, keep windows and doors closed or covered by screens. If you are not able to protect yourself from mosquitoes inside your local accommodations, sleep under a mosquito bed net.
Empty standing water from containers such as flowerpots or buckets.
Refrain from using scented products like floral soaps, cologne and perfume. Unscented soaps are recommended.
Shower regularly, and change out of sweat-saturated clothing quickly. Mosquitoes are more likely to bite individuals who have not showered recently or have excess amounts of sweat.
What if my partner has been exposed to the virus?
Remember: Mosquitoes aren’t the only carriers of the virus. If you are engaging in sexual activity in a Zika-infested area or with a person who has been exposed to the virus, use a condom. According to the WHO, the risk of sexual transmission is more common than previously assumed. The WHO strongly recommends that men and women returning from areas where transmission of Zika virus is known to occur adopt safer sex practices or consider abstinence for at least eight weeks upon return – six months if the male partner has displayed Zika symptoms.
Can Zika cause any long-term health problems for adults?
The WHO has concluded that the Zika virus has been linked to Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a neurological syndrome in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. Several countries have reported either increases in cases of GBS during Zika outbreaks or cases in which the virus was found in GBS patients. Current CDC research indicates that GBS is strongly associated with Zika; however, only a small proportion of people with Zika virus infection get GBS.
Stay informed, stay safe
Global Rescue provides its members with information and warnings about important events and trends that may affect their travel. The MyGlobalRescue mobile app provides detailed country-specific Destination Reports, including medical and security information, to our members. The reports are developed by our worldwide team of intelligence analysts.
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