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What’s the Deal with the Zika Virus?

the zika virus

Chances are you have heard about the Zika virus and are worried, and rightly so. Prompted by growing concern that it may cause birth defects, The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency. Officials project that as many as four million people could become infected by the end of the year.

As the Zika virus continues to cause concern in the U.S. and beyond, the constant media coverage has propelled the public into panic mode. With new cases reported throughout the US, we are all left wondering about this “new” mosquito-borne illness. Let’s face the facts, the word “outbreak” and “epidemic” our heads spinning. Here are a few simple facts surrounding the Zika outbreak.

What is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted disease related to dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that the West Nile virus was sending the world into a tizzy. Discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947, the virus is common in Africa and Asia. So if the virus has been around for decades why are we only now hearing about it? The disease did not begin to spread widely throughout the Western Hemisphere until last May when an outbreak occurred in Brazil.

Until recently, almost no one on this side of the world had been infected with the Zika virus. Since the disease is not native to our area of the world, very few people here have built immune defenses to protect against the virus, causing Zika to spread rapidly.

How is Zika Spread?

The Zika virus is carried by mosquitos and people but is usually spread by mosquitos. A person bitten by a mosquito that has the virus will become infected with Zika. When that infected individual gets bitten by another mosquito, that mosquito then passes the virus along to another person, and so the virus continues to spread.

The virus can also be sexually transmitted. Condom use can protect you against infection. If you are pregnant, and your partner has been exposed to mosquitoes in regions that have Zika, you should talk with your doctor about your risks.

What are the Symptoms of the Zika Virus?

According to a recent article featured on Every Day Health, eighty percent of people who become infected with Zika never exhibit symptoms. For most people, the infection causes no symptoms and leads to no lasting harm. The scientific concern is focused on women who become infected while pregnant and those who develop a temporary form of paralysis after exposure to the Zika virus.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common Zika virus symptoms are fever and rash. The disease can also cause muscle and joint pain, headaches, pain behind the eyes, and conjunctivitis (itchy, red eyes). Health experts at the WHO Regional Office for the Americas report that symptoms typically last two to seven days.

Who’s at Risk for Zika Complications?

Pregnant women, and women trying to get pregnant run the greatest risk of experiencing complications associated with the virus. Peter Jay Hotez, MD, Ph.D. and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston reports, “We’re seeing illness when it strikes women who are pregnant, and it’s producing a horrific effect of microcephaly,” he says. “We don’t know when in pregnancy the consequences are greatest.” It’s best to speak with your doctor if you are pregnant and have come into contact with the Zika virus, as your unborn child may be at risk.

The Washington Post recently reported details pertaining to the 9 confirmed Zika pregnancies in the U.S. Of these 9 confirmed cases, with at least two of the pregnancies ended in abortion, two others have suffered miscarriages, and one woman gave birth to an infant with serious birth defects. On the positive side of that coin, two of the women delivered healthy infants, and the remaining two are still pregnant.

A recent article featured in the New York Times reports that Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned pregnant women against travel to several countries, primarily in the Caribbean and Latin America, where the outbreak is rapidly spreading.

What is Microcephaly?

Microcephaly (my-kroh-SEF-uh-lee) is a rare neurological condition which results in an infant’s head to developing significantly smaller than the heads of other children of the same age and gender. Microcephaly can be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors, to include the Zika virus.

According to the Mayo Clinic, microcephaly may cause developmental delays, such as delays in speech, movement, and growth. There is currently no treatment for microcephaly; however, early intervention services, such as speech and occupational therapies, may help to enhance development and to improve the overall quality of life.

Is there a Vaccine to Protect Against Zika?

At this time, there is no vaccine to protect against Zika. “There’s going to be a need to accelerate a Zika vaccine,” says Hotez. “I think the world got caught by surprise at the congenital infections. Now there’s going to be a lot of interest in a vaccine for women of reproductive age, like the rubella vaccine [to prevent birth defects].”

Currently, there is no treatment for Zika. However, there are several options to treat Zika symptoms, such as over the counter medications for joint pain and ointments to treat the Zika rash. As recently as Friday, the CDC has confirmed 147 Zika cases in the U.S: 107 of these cases are among U.S. travelers returning from Zika infected areas, and the other 40 were locally acquired cases of the virus in U.S. territories. Furthermore, the FDA has granted emergency use of a new CDC test for the Zika virus. “The Zika MAC-ELISA can help determine whether a person has been recently infected with the virus,” said Julie Villanueva, who is with the agency’s Zika response team.

How to Prevent Zika Virus

Mosquito population control is the biggest deterrent to the spread of any mosquito-borne illness, to include the Zika virus. If you are noticing a lot of mosquitos, seek out the areas where they may be breeding and eliminate their water source. You can also prevent the spread of Zika virus by using insect repellents.

Although the Zika virus is rapidly on the rise, this disease poses little threat to individuals within the general population. However, if you are a woman who is, or may become pregnant follow the advice of the WHO and CDC, and avoid travel to areas prone to Zika outbreaks. For the rest of us, we just need to remain vigilant when traveling to Zika prone areas, and, of course, remember your insect repellent.

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