Zika virus has been in the news a lot lately, and because M and I are going to Puerto Rico on vacation this week, I have been doing a lot of research and reading about Zika virus as well. I wanted to put together a little guide for what you need to know about this viral outbreak in case you are considering visiting one of the destinations in which this virus has been found.
What is Zika virus?
Zika virus is a single stranded RNA virus that is related to the dengue virus. It has been around for a long time, mostly infecting those living in regions in Africa. It was first discovered in a Ugandan forest in 1940’s, but somehow in the past year, it has caused an outbreak in the Western Hemisphere, mainly centering around Brazil.
Zika virus is spread by the Aedes mosquitos, mainly by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which also spreads yellow fever. These buggers are aggressive daytime biters but can sometimes bite during nighttime as well.
Why is this a big deal?
Zika virus in normal healthy people causes a fever with rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Not everyone gets symptoms either – about 1 in 5 infected patients actually show signs that they were bitten. But this is becoming a huge deal because last October in Brazil, scientists noticed that there was a sudden rise in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads (microcephaly). Some mothers who were infected with the virus while pregnant might have transmitted Zika virus to their babies, and their babies were born with microcephaly and serious and sometimes fatal developmental abnormalities. Right now we don’t know for sure that Zika virus caused the microcephaly, especially since we don’t know what other viruses or illnesses the mothers of the affected children might have been exposed to during pregnancy, but there seems to be an association. Studies are underway to further elucidate this link.
There is also an uptick in the number of patients with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can cause ascending paralysis from the feet upwards, in the regions with Zika virus infestations. At this point we also do not know enough to say whether or not Zika is the cause of these Guillain-Barre cases.
Where is Zika virus found?
So far, there have been cases of active Zika virus transmission reported in Central and South Americas. The full list of countries can be found here. There have been scattered cases of Zika infected patients in Hawaii, Texas, and just today, three confirmed cases in the UK, but all of those were in people who had recently visited and contracted the virus in South or Central America.
So do I need to postpone my tropical island getaway?
If you are pregnant, yes. The official CDC travel recommendation is that until we know more, pregnant women in any trimester should postpone their trip to any country with active Zika transmission. If you are NOT pregnant, which is the category I fall under, the CDC recommends practicing enhanced precautions (Alert Level 2), meaning being extra vigilant about preventing mosquito bites. If you are planning on getting pregnant soon or in the near future, I urge you to speak with your ob/gyn or other healthcare provider to see whether or not it is safe for you to go. We don’t know the full story about the virus and how it affects people and future pregnancies, so please play it safe and speak to your doctor.
How do I protect myself?
Since there is no cure for Zika virus once you’re infected, the best you can do is to prevent mosquito bites in the first place. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has this website that helps you find the right insect repellent for you. You can also check the CDC page here for which ingredients you should look for when choosing your bugspray. In a nutshell you should find repellent with DEET, Picaridin, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, or IR3535. I used Deep Woods Off! Repellent with 25% DEET when I visited Puerto Rico recently. Put on sunscreen first (facial sunscreen here and a lightweight body sunscreen here), repellent second, and religiously reapply your repellent according to the directions on the bottle. The CDC also recommends treating your clothes with permethrin, which is an insecticide. This goes without saying but avoid areas with high mosquito density like swamps and wear long sleeves and pants when possible to minimize the skin exposed.
References / More Reading: