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Zika Virus: How Worried Should I Be?

Everyone has heard something about the Zika virus. You may be surprised to know that while it has gotten a lot of press (because of its spread and link to birth defects), it’s not new. Zika was in fact, discovered in 1947 and is named for the Zika Forest in Uganda. The first cases of human infection were reported in 1952. So how worried should you be about this nearly 70 year-old virus? Well, that all depends on where you live, whether you are planning on traveling, or if you are pregnant (or trying to become pregnant). Here are the quick highlights on Zika:


Interestingly, most infected people don’t even know they have it. For those who experience symptoms, they are usually mild and last 2-7 days. Symptoms include: red eyes, fever, muscle and joint pains, malaise (overall feeling crummy), headache, and rash. Of note, there have been a few reported cases of rare neurological complications (including Guillain-Barre syndrome).


Zika virus is spread primarily via Aedes mosquitoes (not typically the variety found in the continental US).  There have been a few reported cases of human-to-human spread via sex. This is especially important for pregnant women’s sex partners living in or returning from areas where there is local transmission of Zika. FYI, the incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) is thought to be anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks. This means that if your exposure was over 2 weeks ago and you didn’t get it or any symptoms, you are probably in the clear.


The best way to prevent contracting Zika is preventing mosquito bites (if you are in an area where Zika has been reported). Use insect repellents (especially those with DEET, picaridin, IR3535, OLE, or PMD), wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, use a bed net, apply window screens, and reduce breeding sites (standing water). It is also best to use condoms when having sex (again, if you or your partner are or have been in locations with Zika). Pediatrician’s note: don’t use mosquito repellents on children younger than 2 months (some experts say younger than 6 months), and don’t use products that contain more than 30% DEET.


The diagnosis of Zika is suspected if the symptoms match AND there is a history of recent travel to affected areas of the world. Confirmation is made via laboratory testing in blood, urine, or saliva.


There is no specific treatment, cure, or vaccine. Any treatment would be supportive only (e.g., Tylenol or Motrin for headaches or joint pain). As with many viruses, it just takes time for the body to recover on its own.


The most affected areas are: the Caribbean (including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands), the Americas (extending from Mexico to Paraguay), Africa (Cape Verde), and the Pacific Islands. Areas of Southeast Asia were also affected prior to 2015. As of April 2016, there are no reported cases of transmissions from mosquitoes in the continental US. There have been a number of reported travel-associated cases (358 to be exact, as of April 13, 2016).


The CDC has issued a Level 2 “travel notice” which means practice enhanced precautions for people traveling to areas with Zika. There are specific warnings for women who are pregnant (in any trimester) or trying to get pregnant to consider postponing travel to areas with Zika.


Zika virus can be passed from mother to fetus. From the outbreak that started in Brazil in 2015, we are learning of the associated risk of birth defects including microcephaly (small heads) and brain malformations. Women who are pregnant or wanting to become pregnant should heed travel warnings and practice prevention strategies. If there has been exposure, seek medical care.

Now that you know all there is to know about the Zika virus, you can make an informed decision on whether to take that awesome trip to the Fiji or the Caribbean. As for me and my house, we’ll be hanging at home (mostly because we have nothing planned, not because of Zika).