The Zika virus was first discovered in Brazil in April 2015. Since then, the virus has spread across the Americas and to other parts of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika fever an epidemic in January of this year. Most recently, a man returning to the US from Venezuela was discovered to have spread the virus to his sexual partner—a rare case which has puzzled researchers. It is still unclear whether Zika causes microcephaly (reduced head size) in newborn infants, but public health officials suspect there is a strong correlation. The virus is poorly understood, however, and a potential vaccine is still far off. Here’s what we know so far.
What is Zika?
Zika fever is caused by the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes type found in the Americas. However, the virus is much more widely spread in South and Central America. The Zika virus remains in the bloodstream for a week or two, which is usually when symptoms begin to arise. Epidemiologists have also suggested other routes of transmission—namely, through sexual intercourse and pregnancy—but further research needs to be conducted.
Most Zika cases are mild in nature. In fact, only 20% of infected people show any symptoms at all, which is partly why the recent outbreak is so confusing. When symptoms do arise, they typically include:
· Fever and headache
· Mild skin rash
· Pink eye
· Joint Pain
These symptoms, which are similar to those of dengue fever, usually last up to a week. However, in recent months there have also been unexplained cases of microcephaly and rare neurological disorders such as Guillain–Barré syndrome
How to Prevent Infection
The CDC has issued a travel warning to pregnant women, advising them not to visit affected areas in South America (as well as some Pacific islands). Several Latin American countries have even advised against pregnancy in their own countries until the disease is better understood. For those who do travel in South America—and especially pregnant women who visit—it is advised to use strong insect repellants, wear long–sleeve clothes and remain in aerated or air–conditioned rooms away from stagnant water sources. Pregnant women traveling to affected areas should also receive fetal ultrasounds to check for congenital problems. In March 2016 the CDC also advised infected men to avoid sexual intercourse or use condoms for at least six months after symptoms arise. There is currently no vaccine, though research is being conducted.
Treatment for Zika fever is limited to palliative care to address the symptoms. Recommendations include:
· Anti–fever medications (e.g. paracetamol)
· Ointments to soothe itching caused by rash
· Anti–inflammatory drugs to reduce joint pain
· Rest, and replenish water loss with plenty of fluids
Unfortunately, little can be done to halt the advance of the disease post–infection.