You’ve likely heard more about the Zika virus recently, both as we learn more about it and as the weather gets warmer and mosquitos are more prevalent. So what’s the latest that you need to know? Brett Hendel-Paterson and Bill Stauffer, both HealthPartners Tropical and Travel Medicine doctors, explain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that 544 people have been diagnosed in the United States, including 157 pregnant women. All of the cases have been related to an affected person traveling to an area where the Zika virus is known to exist. (See the list of countries here) Seventeen cases have been diagnosed in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.
Here are some common questions about the virus:
What exactly is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted virus related to Dengue and Yellow Fever. It was discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and there have been outbreaks in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. It was most recently recognized in Brazil in May 2015 and has since been found in many countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
How do you know if you have it?
Zika is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes species, which usually bite during the day. It can also transmitted sexually and be spread from a pregnant mother to her baby during pregnancy or around the time of birth.
Many people infected with Zika won’t have symptoms or will only have mild symptoms, usually within two weeks of returning from an area where Zika virus is present. The virus usually causes mild fever, rash, achy joints, or conjunctivitis (red, irritated eyes). The incubation period is 3-12 days, and symptoms usually go away after about a week.
Is it curable?
There is currently no antiviral medication to treat Zika virus; however, the CDC recently requested funding from Congress to develop a vaccine, among other things. Treatment is supportive and includes rest, fluids, and medications to treat achiness or fever.
Why is this particularly dangerous for pregnant women?
The Zika virus has been linked to birth defects in infants, most notably microcephaly, which is characterized by an abnormally small head and brain and often leads to significant developmental issues. The CDC continues to recommend that pregnant women in any trimester and any women trying to become pregnant consider postponing travel to affected countries. (See the list of countries here)
Now that mosquitos are back, could I get Zika from one in Minnesota?
None of the people that have been infected with Zika in the United States have gotten it from a mosquito bite here; they have all recently traveled to an area of the world where Zika is known to be spreading. The risk of someone being infected with Zika from a mosquito here in Minnesota is very low because the mosquito that is known to carry the virus does not generally travel this far north.
If I visit a travel medicine clinic, can I still go to these countries?
For most people, the risk of Zika virus is similar to the risk of Dengue fever or Chikungunya. The only way to prevent infection is to prevent mosquito bites. Our travel medicine clinic discusses enhanced precautions to avoid insect bites, which prevent all diseases carried by insects. Unfortunately, no option is 100 percent effective. The situation is changing daily. Right now women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant are discouraged from travel to areas known to have Zika virus. At the travel clinic, we will investigate the specific destination and discuss the risk of travel, as well as avoidance.
Additional information can be found on the CDC’s website.