Zika Virus: A threat but not for U.S.

March 28, 2016
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

First, the good news for most Americans and most of my readers.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus is unlikely to threaten your health.

Yes, when the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaims Zika “a public health emergency of international concern,” that’s scary.

But the scariest coverage has been from authorities with global responsibilities, like WHO and our Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They’re responding to Zika activity far from us and far more threatening.

Bottom line: Scientists at the American Mosquito Control Association say an “explosive” onslaught of Zika is “extremely unlikely in the continental United States.”

Indeed, of nearly 200 reported cases found in the US, all patients were bitten while in threatened areas in South and Latin America and elsewhere.

That’s not “explosive.” But each Zika victim is a potential local transmitter. If the right mosquito, which could be a local resident, bites a carrier, it becomes a local carrier.

We do need to take precautions.

What is Zika virus disease?

The disease is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito. These are the same nasty bugs that transmit dengue fever, chikungunya virus, and other malicious diseases. The Asian Tiger mosquito is also a suspected carrier.

Warning bells ring: the Aedes is native to the US only in some Gulf Coast and southern swamplands. The Tiger is a full-time resident threat in many more areas, as far north as upstate Pennsylvania, where the first suspected Tiger-to-human transmission was found very recently.

The mosquito needs the blood of someone already infected, which it then transmits to its next bite victim. Unlike some other mosquito-borne diseases, a human with Zika can transmit it to other people via unprotected sex.

What are the symptoms?

People with Zika virus disease usually have 2–7 days of non-dire symptoms, including:

  • Mild fever
  • Skin rashes
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Malaise
  • Headache

These relatively mild symptoms are good news—but not all good. Symptoms usually appear only 2–7 days after transmission, and several other health problems present similar symptoms. Both of these give Zika “cover” until it’s officially diagnosed.

Fortunately, victims rarely need a serious intervention—and that’s good, because there isn’t one. The tried and true regimen—lots of liquids and rest—are the go-to remedy.

So why all the fuss?

If Zika symptoms are pretty benign, why the alarm bells?

  1. Because Zika is suspected of making pregnant women—perhaps the most vulnerable of all people—far more likely to bear infants with serious brain defects, most commonly microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with unusually small heads and underdeveloped brains.
  2. And because very recent research has linked Zika to Guillain-Barré syndrome, an immune system disorder in adults that can lead, though rarely, to fatal paralysis, and short of that, to temporary paralysis, a world of discomfort, and possible brain damage.

So do the Zika calculus.

No vaccine to prevent it.

No treatment to cure it.

Millions of unborn children in affected areas—and possibly adults—at risk of serious brain damage.

That’s why the fuss. It’s serious.

Prevention is the key

The best prevention is to protect against Zika-carrying mosquito bites. That means avoiding travel to:

  • Brazil
  • Colombia
  • Puerto Rico
  • Hawaii
  • Florida
  • Mexico
  • Venezuela
  • US Virgin Islands and Samoa
  • Haiti and the Dominican Republic
  • The Caribbean

If you must travel to any of these locations:

  • Wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Stay in air-conditioned places or locations where window and door screens keep mosquitoes outside
  • Sleep under a mosquito net
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents as directed. They’re OK even for pregnant and breast-feeding women—who should stay away in the first place.

At home, clean up your house and environment to reduce mosquito breeding grounds. That means removing standing water in birdbaths, planters, bottles, and plastic bags or anywhere else—mosquitos can breed in space as small as a bottle top.

One public official responsible for mosquito control says, “It’s [the] backyard habitat that is really, really, very important. Please clean up your stuff. I cannot be in everybody’s backyard.”

Don’t panic, just be smart.

To repeat: it’s unlikely you’ll be on the front lines of exposure to Zika, especially the farther north you live.

But, stay vigilant. If you and mosquitos of any sort share the environment, make it hard for them to stay and breed there, and hard for them to get close enough to dine on you.

References

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