Many of Dr. Brewton’s patients are rightfully concerned about the frightening news reports about the spread of Zika virus.
The Zika virus is especially troubling for pregnant women or those women who have the potential to become pregnant due the virus causing severe birth defects like microcephaly (which presents itself as an abnormally small head in babies) and other brain problems in newborns.
At the beginning of the year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issue travel guidelines for tourists contemplating visits to affected areas, including the host city for this Summer’s Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro. The CDC recommends taking enhanced precautions against mosquito bites and (in an extraordinary step) asks pregnant women to consider postponing travel to Zika affected areas.
At present, the areas most affected by the Zika virus are in tropical zones along the equator. The virus has been known to occur in an equatorial belt from Africa to Asia since the 1950s. However, in recent years, the Zika virus has been on the move. Outbreaks were detected in South Pacific islands like French Polynesia, the Cook Islands and Easter Island in 2013 and 2014.
Then, in 2015, the Zika virus became established in the Western Hemisphere, spreading to areas of Mexico, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Brazil has been particularly hard hit as the virus has reached pandemic levels. It has also called into question whether hosting the international Olympic games in Rio should be postponed or not due to the pandemic.
In addition to Mexico, the Zika virus has also been detected in Caribbean vacation destinations such as Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. As travel to these destinations from the greater Houston region increases — thanks in part to new flight routes from Southwest Airlines departing from Hobby Airport –there is great concern that the Zika virus could become established in the continental United States in the near future.
The main transmission vector for the Zika virus is the female Aedes aegypti mosquito. This mosquito is mostly active during the daytime, so don’t let down your guard, thinking that risky mosquito bites only occur at sunrise and the late evening twilight hours.
Wear long sleeves and long pants with socks and consider using mosquito repellent with DEET to ward off mosquitoes.
Also, be aware that mosquito bites are not the only mechanism for transmission of the Zika virus. Researchers have confirmed that men are capable of transmitting the virus to sex partners. In laboratory tests, it was found that Zika virus can stay active in semen for 2 to possibly 10 weeks after exposure. (To date there has not been any research that indicates sexual transmission from female partners who have been exposed to Zika virus.)
As a result, in March the CDC recommended that men who have confirmed or suspected symptoms of Zika virus use condoms during sex or abstain from having sex for at least six months after the symptoms first presented themselves. Men who travel to an area with the Zika virus, but don’t develop symptoms, should still consider using condoms or avoiding having sex for at least eight weeks after they return home.
Efforts to create a Zika virus vaccine are on a fast track. This month Pei-Yong Shi, PhD from UTMB in Galveston announced they have developed a clone of the Zika virus to use in their mouse model virus testing program. It’s also been reported that 18 companies and institutions are working to develop a vaccine against the virus. But the soonest a virus vaccine could become available for human patients appears to be two years from now, at the earliest.
What are the symptoms if you contract the Zika virus?
If you travel to an area known to be active with the Zika virus, you should be on the lookout for these common symptoms:
Mild headaches, a maculopapular skin rash (characterized by a flat, reddish area covered with small bumps), fever, malaise, conjunctivitis and joint pain.
However, be aware that it’s possible that only one in five people infected with the Zika virus will present any symptoms at all. It’s also unclear if persons infected with the virus that don’t show any symptoms can transmit the virus to others are not.
We’ll provide updates on this evolving story as they occur.