What You Need to Know About the Zika Virus Outbreak

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No vaccines or medicine yet exist to treat the pathogen

What You Need to Know About the Zika Virus Outbreak

Updated Feb. 15, 2016

By now you’ve heard a lot about the Zika virus. What do you need to know?

What is the Zika virus?

Zika is a pathogen that typically causes only mild symptoms. The Zika virus is most often transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mosquitoes become infected when they bite a person already infected with the virus.

It’s also been reported that the virus can spread through blood transfusion and sexual contact and, rarely, from a mother already infected with the virus to her newborn around the time of birth. The CDC recently announced guidelines for preventing sexual transmission of the virus.

However, researchers don’t know everything about the Zika virus yet. No vaccine or medicine exists specifically to treat people with the virus, the CDC says.

Symptoms

Symptoms of the Zika virus can include fever, rash, joint pain or red eyes. Those infected with the virus usually experience symptoms within two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.

You can treat the symptoms by getting plenty of rest and fluids. Reduce fever and pain by taking acetaminophen.

The virus is out of the body of a sick person after about a week. Once you’ve been infected with the virus,  you’re  likely protected from future infections, the CDC says.

Avoiding infection

The Zika virus is not spread through touch, coughing or sneezing. It is not contagious like the flu or a cold and people with the virus do not need to be isolated from others. The virus is sexually transmitted when a person is actively infected and showing symptoms.

Here are actions you can take to prevent the possibility of infection:

  • Avoid travel to a Zika-infected area. Consult your health care provider if you must travel.
  • If you must travel to an area with Zika virus, use mosquito repellant such as DEET, expose as little skin as possible when outside, and avoid being outside if possible.
  • If your partner has traveled to a Zika-infected area, avoid unprotected sexual intercourse and use a condom correctly and consistently for the time being. Your partner should be tested for the Zika virus.

Zika and pregnant women

Health officials have recently been alarmed because of a possible link between the virus and more than 3,500 children born with microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in Brazil since October, says infectious disease specialist Lucileia Johnson, MD.

Microcephaly is a rare neurological disorder in which the circumference of the head is smaller than average for an infant’s size and age. Microcephaly often is associated with some degree of mental retardation. However, in 15 percent of the cases, the child has normal intelligence.

More research is needed to determine if there is a direct link between the birth defect and the Zika virus. The incidence of microcephaly among fetuses with congenital Zika infection is unknown, although Brazil witnessed a 20 fold increase of microcephaly from 2014 to 2015.

It is possible that Zika virus could be passed from mother to fetus during pregnancy, the CDC says. This mode of transmission is being investigated.

“When the virus goes to the bloodstream it can pass to the baby and cause inflammation of the baby’s brain,”  Dr. Johnson says.

To date, there are no reports of infants getting Zika virus through breastfeeding, the CDC says. Because of the benefits of breastfeeding, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed even in areas where Zika virus is found.

Travel advisory

The CDC is advising women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant to avoid going to countries in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, where the virus is rapidly spreading.

If you have traveled to an area affected by the Zika virus and are planning to get pregnant, whether through intercourse or in vitro fertilization, you should speak with your physician. This includes men as well, as Zika can be passed through semen.

Dr. Johnson  says that pregnant women who may have been to any of these countries recently also should contact their physician.

“You have to seek professional advice,” said Dr. Johnson. “I would not panic. Just get tested if it’s going to bring you peace of mind.”

The CDC says that because the species of mosquitoes that spread Zika virus are found throughout the world, it is likely that outbreaks will occur in new countries.

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