The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency. According to Dr. Ahmad Bailony, a doctor affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, the Zika virus was discovered in 1947. However, the recent increases in cases reported and the suspected causal relationship between the virus and birth defects is causing alarm.
"Doctors have always known that the Zika virus causes a mild illness," says Dr. Bailony. "The thing that is new is that we're finding a link between it and microcephaly, and that's concerning." Microcephaly is a birth defect causing unusually small head size in babies. Although there is a link, doctors are still not sure if Zika virus is responsible for the uptick in microcephaly in affected areas.
Education about the virus is important in ensuring it is contained. Here are five things you should know about the Zika virus:
1. How is the Zika virus spread?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The mosquitoes become infected by biting a person who is already infected. It is also transferred from a pregnant mother to her infant during pregnancy or delivery. Recent reports from Texas indicate that the virus has also been transmitted through sex, most likely through the semen of a man who had traveled to an area where the virus was reported.
2. What are the symptoms and related complications?
Dr. Bailony notes that for most people, there are no symptoms. For the roughly 20 percent who are symptomatic, the illness is mild with symptoms similar to the common cold, such as low-grade fever, joint pain, rash and red eyes. However, scientists are researching whether an increase in cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome — a rare disorder that causes the immune system to damage nerve cells and leads to muscle weakness — are caused by the Zika virus.
3. Who is at risk?
The CDC cautions that anyone living in or traveling to areas where the virus transmission is occurring, such as the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America, should take precautions.
"Women who are pregnant or want to get pregnant should avoid traveling to areas that have the virus," says Dr. Philip Diamond, chief of OBGYN for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. "Information is available on the CDC website. I recommend patients who are thinking about traveling to those areas look at the travel advisories. Things are changing very quickly and the most up-to-date information is there."
4. How can infection be prevented?
Because there is currently no vaccine for the Zika virus, it is most important to prevent the spread of the disease by mosquito bites.
"Mosquito protection involves wearing protective clothing - long sleeves, long pants — and using mosquito netting and screens in the home if you have a lot of mosquitoes," says Dr. Joshua Minuto, an infectious disease specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy. "Make sure there is no standing water and empty out flowerpots and other areas where there might be standing water. You can also use DEET, which is an insect repellant that is safe for pregnant women and is considered effective."
5. Is there a treatment for the virus?
There is no treatment for the Zika virus. However, the symptoms can be addressed. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration. Over-the-counter fever- and pain-relief medicine, such as acetaminophen, can be taken to alleviate discomfort.
Talk with your health care provider if you are experiencing symptoms of the Zika virus and have recently traveled to areas known to have a Zika outbreak
Pregnant women or those trying to become pregnant who have travelled to or plan to travel to areas with Zika transmission should practice extra caution and discuss the risks related to Zika virus infection with their OBGYN.