As spread of the Zika virus becomes a global health emergency, physicians are likely to encounter questions from concerned patients, especially those planning travel to infected regions in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Although news coverage has focused on the serious risks for pregnant and child-bearing women due to the possible link between the disease and microcephaly, DOs stress that anyone traveling or living in an area where the virus is present can become infected and should take precautions.
The need for these safeguards can continue even after returning home – especially if a patient lives in a region of the U.S. where the Aedes mosquito that transmits the virus is found. “If an individual is infected with the virus and an Aedes mosquito bites them, they can introduce the virus into a new community,” says Mary Macgregor, DO, an infectious disease specialist and director of Travel Medicine Source in Morton Grove, Illinois.
Here’s what you need to know about the virus:
Who is at risk?
According to the CDC, anyone who lives in or travels to an area where Zika virus is found can be at risk for infection. The virus is currently found in 20 countries and territories, mostly concentrated in the Americas, Pacific Islands and Africa.
What are the symptoms?
“About 1 in 5 people infected with Zika will become ill and show symptoms,” says Mia Taormina, DO, chair of infectious diseases at DuPage Medical Group in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Infected patients may experience fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis. These symptoms typically appear within two to 12 days after becoming infected. However, many people may not show any symptoms at all.
Severe complications of the virus for non-pregnant individuals are rare but can cause significant and long-term health issues, including increased risk for Guillain-Barre syndrome, according to Dr. Taormina.
Although there is no confirmed correlation between cases of microcephaly related to Zika virus, a highly probable link has been established, explains Dr. Taormina. “Babies born with microcephaly will endure lifelong health and developmental disabilities,” she says.
How can patients protect themselves?
There is currently no vaccine for the Zika virus, with development of a treatment likely years down the road, notes Shari Glynn, DO, MPH, MBA, the medical director of Lake County Occupational Health Services at Abbott Laboratories in Abbott Park, Illinois.
Because no treatment plan exists, Drs. Glynn and Taormina advise patients, especially those who are pregnant, to postpone travel to any countries or territories where the virus is currently prevalent.
It that is not possible, they recommend the following tips to prevent infection and minimize risk of spreading the virus:
- Apply mosquito repellent containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus liberally and often on anyone 2 months of age or older. DEET is safe for use by pregnant women, notes Scott Macgregor, DO, the director of maternal fetal medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago’s northern suburbs. “They need to apply it to exposed areas throughout the day because this type of mosquito bites during the daytime and evening,” he says.
- Wear long sleeves and pants. Treat clothing with Permethrin spray for an added layer of protection.
- Contact the local health department or travel medicine clinic with any questions or concerns about travel to an endemic area for a consultation prior to the trip.
If you suspect a patient may have contracted the virus, you should contact your state health department or the CDC.
If a pregnant woman begins to show symptoms, she can be tested through the CDC, says Dr. Scott Macgregor. “Pregnant women with confirmed infection or those travelling to affected areas should have an ultrasound evaluation to look for signs of microcephaly, which can take six weeks or more to appear,” he says. If results come back negative, ultrasounds should be repeated every four to six weeks.