Zika – What You Need to Know

The recent news cycles have produced a national paranoia surrounding the virus, Zika. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus, a “public health emergency of international concern.” In this early stage, a big factor in the news about Zika is the amount of unknowns. As Dr. Margaret Chan, General Director of the WHO, said, “The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one out of five people infected with the virus will actually develop the disease. Additionally, cases that have required hospitalization or had fatal effects are extremely rare. While most people recover fully from Zika, these rare cases are indicators of the seriousness of virus and disease outbreaks in an increasingly globalizing world. But as with all health threats and pandemics, education is the key to managing paranoia and ensuring proper protection.

So what is Zika exactly?

According to the CDC, Zika is a viral infection that is transmitted through mosquito bites. The Aedes species of mosquito, native to tropical environments, feeds on an infected person and then carries the virus to other people. While the disease is primarily spread through these insects, we need more research to determine if it can also be transmitted through sexual contact or blood transfusion. Usually diminishing after a week, symptoms of the infection can include fever, rash, conjunctivitis, joint pain, muscle ache and headache. The best treatment for Zika is similar to the common cold – rest, fluids and acetaminophen to relieve aches and pains. The CDC warns against using aspirin-based or anti-inflammatory pain relievers to avoid internal hemorrhage and other health risks.

While Zika is not a new virus, the first recent case causing concern was reported by the Pan American Health Organization in May 2015. Since then, the disease has spread at an unusual rate, causing global concern, particularly in North and South America, reported the New York Times. The media has focused on the rare resulting conditions of the disease, such as the birth-defecting microcephaly or the nerve-attacking Guillain-Bare syndrome. CNN and other news outlets have reported on Brazil’s recent spike in babies born with microcephaly, a rare illness that causes the baby’s head to be smaller than usual and can lead to brain damage. Similarly, El Salvador has reported an odd increase of Guillain-Bare syndrome, a treatable condition in which the immune system turns on the nervous system, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.  

As of now, the CDC has confirmed the disease in many Caribbean and South American countries including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The CDC has issued a Level 2 travel alert, warning travelers to take extra precautions in these areas and giving special warning to pregnant women.

Currently, there is no vaccine to treat or prevent Zika, but the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has confirmed that vaccines are being developed by scientists at the National Institutes of Health. In the meantime, the CDC suggest individuals can prevent infection by wearing bug spray with DEET or other approved ingredients, covering up exposed skin with long sleeves and pants, treating clothing with permethrin and staying in spaces with screens or air-conditioning. 

Although much about the Zika infection is still uncertain, we do know one thing for sure: Clinicians can aid their patients by implementing continuing education and providing updates on the virus as more is learned. By doing so, you can ease your patients’ fears.