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2016-06-01 / OnCall

What You Need to Know About Zika Virus

Evan T. Bell, M.D.

Q: There’s been so much in the news about Zika virus. As we enter mosquito season here in Central Pennsylvania, what do we need to know and how can we protect ourselves?

A: If you’ve heard about Zika virus and are wondering what it is and how to protect yourself, you are not alone. As summer approaches, concerns are growing over the mosquito-borne illness.

Zika virus is normally transmitted to people through bites from mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, which breed in pools of water and are common to the U.S., mostly in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, and in Hawaii, although they have been found as far north as New York in hot weather.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the symptoms are typically mild (if any at all), last about a week to 10 days and could include headache, fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). Treatment usually involves treating the symptoms with rest, fluids and over-the-counter pain relief medications.

More concerning than the mild symptoms is that a pregnant woman can pass Zika virus to her fetus during pregnancy, and there have been documented cases of Zika virus transmitted through sexual contact. Unborn babies are most at risk for Zika virus complications; evidence indicates that the virus causes microcephaly, unusually small heads, and damaged brains in infants.

There is currently no vaccine against Zika virus, but there are ways to protect yourself. The CDC recommends that travelers to areas where Zika virus is found take the following steps to avoid mosquito bites: cover exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and hats; stay in screened or air-conditioned rooms, or sleep under a mosquito net; and use insect repellant at all times. Pregnant women should avoid travel to areas where the virus is spreading — mostly South America, Central America and the Caribbean — and women trying to become pregnant should consult with their health-care providers before traveling. Pregnant women who have traveled to countries with Zika virus should be tested for exposure to the virus.

As for women looking to become pregnant in the future, the CDC says this: “Based on the available evidence, we think that Zika virus infection in a woman who is not pregnant would not pose a risk for birth defects in future pregnancies after the virus has cleared from her blood.”

As of May 18, the CDC had reported 544 travel-related cases of Zika virus in the U.S., but there were no cases of the virus being locally acquired from a mosquito bite. We should be heartened that other Aedes-associated viruses such as dengue and chikungunya, which are more common, have not seen significant spread in the U.S. Visit cdc.gov/zika for more prevention and travel information.

Evan T. Bell, M.D.
Infectious Diseases
Mount Nittany Physician Group

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