Recently the question was asked on the news whether it was safe to go to the Olympics in Brazil; so here is some background information about the Zika virus. Zika virus was first isolated from mosquitoes in a forest named Zika forest in Uganda, which was in 1947.
Zika virus belongs into the virus family of Flaviviridae. Other members in that family are dengue fever, West Nile virus, yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis. Since the 1950’s Zika virus has occupied a narrow equatorial belt around the globe (Africa and Asia). But between 2007 and 2016 it spread further to the Americas and to the Pacific. Specifically French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Easter Island and New Caledonia were included. Since May 2015 Brazil has joined the countries where mosquitoes are infected with Zika virus. This is an important point to know for the coming up Olympics in Rio on August 5 to 21, 2016.
Symptoms of Zika virus
For most people, particularly the young and middle aged Zika may not be that symptomatic. The most common symptoms are a fever, a skin rash, joint aches and red eyes (conjunctivitis). However, when a pregnant woman gets Zika virus, this will likely affect the fetus and will lead to a baby born with a small head (microcephalus), a severe complication from Zika virus. When a woman contracts Zika virus, the virus disappears after about one week. But in men the virus seems to stay longer, particularly in semen. This is why the CDC recommends for men using a condom or refraining from sex when returning from a holiday in a Zika endemic area. It may take up to 8 weeks for the semen to no longer be infective. The CDC recommends that a man who has come down with Zika to use a condom for 6 months.
Treatment of Zika virus
Make sure you get lots of rest. Take acetaminophen for fever or pain. Don’t take aspirin (ASA) or anti-inflammatory medication. Be aware that for between 1 and 3 weeks your blood likely is infectious. You want to avoid being bitten by a mosquito and it will be sensible to use insect repellant. The same insect could have bitten another person and spread the virus this way. A person who gets the Zika virus depends on the immune system to overcome the infection as there is no cure for this viral infection.
At this point no vaccine against Zika exists. There is research in an attempt to develop a Zika vaccine, which may become available in 2 to 3 years.
Zika virus risk with travel
If you travel to endemic areas, but visit mountainous areas above an elevation of 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) you are safe from Zika transmitting mosquitoes as they do not survive in these heights.
With regard to the Olympic Summer Games in Rio 2016 the CDC recommends to take a few precautions. Use insect repellents. Be aware as a woman that men infected with Zika virus can transmit the virus through sex. If you want to protect yourself from the risk of giving birth to a child with microcephaly, you may decide to use the birth control pill and ask your partner to use a condom. When you return back home, do not plan for a pregnancy for 6 months to avoid the risk.
The only recommendation for the Olympics by the CDC is that pregnant women should categorically not go to the games for fear of getting Zika infection resulting in a bad outcome of the pregnancy with microcephaly.
Microcephaly and other brain abnormalities from Zika virus
The CDC has stated that it is now established that Zika virus can cause microcephaly, but that it likely does not do so in all cases of Zika virus infection.
We know from German measles (rubella) that it can cause serious health risks for the fetus including death.
Zika is similarly neurotropic, meaning that it likes to multiply in nervous tissue including the brain. With rubella there is a vaccine available, which has made it much safer for pregnant women. But with Zika no vaccine is available. The only prevention is to stay away from endemic Zika areas and otherwise use reliable birth control methods.
I have briefly reviewed Zika virus in this blog. Unfortunately there are still many gaps in the knowledge of this disease. We need an effective Zika virus vaccine. It would also help to have antiviral antibiotics. All this needs to be researched. For now we need to use prevention and avoid endemic Zika regions by reading updates by the CDC.