Understanding Zika Virus

The Zika virus has been getting a lot of attention recently, and with good reason. Some have a good grasp on what to worry about regarding the Zika virus and how to protect themselves. Still, many don’t understand the virus; they just know they should be nervous. Currently, many states have reported at least one Zika case from infection as a result of travel, but Miami is currently the only location in the United States that has confirmed Zika-infected mosquitos. Miami is working to eliminate these mosquitos and stop any local epidemic.

Contrary to the popular belief, the Zika virus is not new. It was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda. It did not get much attention until recently because prior to the twenty-second century, it had stayed in a relatively narrow area in Africa and Asia. In 2015, there were several infants born with brain abnormalities and small, deformed heads. After research, it was discovered that the common denominator among these cases was each mother had been infected with Zika virus during pregnancy.

Before 2007, the Zika virus was not spreading quickly. Between 1947-2007, there were only 14 confirmed cases. Since April of 2015, there have been 3,500 cases of microcephaly (small heads) in newborns linked to this virus. Most of these cases have been in Central and South America, which is also a change in the virus from pre-2007.

The virus is not of a huge concern to non-pregnant people. It is spread primarily through infected mosquitos. However, we have also learned that it can spread through sexual contact or from a mother to her unborn child. If non-pregnant people are infected, the symptoms are usually mild. Symptoms range from fever, joint pain, rash, and red eyes to headache and muscle pain. Some are even asymptomatic. The vast majority of the time, the symptoms are mild enough to not require hospitalization or any long-term treatment.

The biggest concern with the Zika virus has been in newborns who were infected while the mother was still pregnant. It’s still such a new discovery in terms of transmission that medical professionals are unclear about how to protect women of childbearing age. In other words, all of these newborns have been affected within the last year. There have been a wide range of defects, and it is still unclear which trimester proves to be the riskiest for transmission of the virus in utero. For this reason, the current recommendation is for all women who are pregnant- or who are of childbearing age- to avoid the Zika-exposed areas and use extra caution.

The other difficulty in talking about realistic preventative measures is that testing has shown that men can still transmit the virus to their female partners for up to 6 months after being infected. Women can shed the virus for three months after being infected. Experts are still not sure why this discrepancy exists, but it is recommended further that men whose partners are pregnant or may become pregnant also protect themselves from the Zika virus.
As always, the best way to protect yourself is to stay up-to-date on the news. The CDC is constantly monitoring Zika-infected areas and posting them on their website. Check the website before traveling. If you absolutely must travel to an area that is currently at-risk for the Zika virus, wear long sleeves, long pants, and use bug spray to try and deter mosquitos from biting you.

Staff Contributor

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