Pregnant women and travelers to tropical areas should use caution

By Kathryn Moffett, MD

Dr. Kathryn Moffett

What was discovered in an African forest in 1947 is causing quite a commotion today in 2016. Yes, I'm talking about the Zika virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other health organizations, has been tracking the spread of the Zika virus.

State health officials have confirmed the first case of Zika virus in West Virginia. The adult male, from Clay County, had visited Haiti. He is now fully recovered from his flu-like illness. There are no reports of anyone becoming infected while in West Virginia.

What is Zika?

Zika is a virus carried by the Aedes mosquito. Symptoms typically last a week and include fever, joint pain, rash, conjunctivitis, headache, and muscle pain. Only one in five infected people will experience symptoms.

Treatment includes getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and taking acetaminophen to relieve acute pain and fever. The illness is usually mild; severe disease is uncommon, and deaths are rare.

Who is at risk?

Only people who have traveled to a Zika-affected area are at risk. The virus can be transmitted only by a mosquito bite from the Aedes mosquito, which lives in tropical and subtropical areas. This species of mosquito is not typically found as far north as West Virginia. Spread of the virus through blood transfusions and sexual contact has been reported but not confirmed. However, according to the CDC, the Zika virus will continue to spread, and it will be difficult to determine how and where it will spread over time.

Why should pregnant women avoid Zika?

A link has been found between women contracting the Zika virus while pregnant, with or without symptoms, and their children being born with microcephaly, a condition where the head and brain do not develop correctly, leading to a visibly small head and severe intellectual and physical handicaps. While this link is not fully understood, women who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant are discouraged from traveling to areas where the Zika virus is known to live.

Where is Zika found?

Imported cases, or cases in which a patient contracts the disease while traveling and is diagnosed when he or she returns, have been reported in 33 states.

The current outbreak of the Zika virus started in Brazil, and the virus is now active in Puerto Rico and 25 other South American and Central American countries or territories.

When did it start?

The Zika virus was first discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947. For several decades the disease was seen only sporadically in Africa and Asia. In May 2015, the first cases transmitted in the Americas were reported in Brazil.

How do I avoid it?

Travelers intending to visit a tropical area should check the CDC website to see if their destination is affected by Zika and plan accordingly. Pregnant women are advised to not travel to Zika-affected areas at all. Other travelers should use bug spray, wear long sleeves and pants when possible, and sleep under a mosquito net if the sleeping area is not well enclosed. These suggestions are advisable to ward off not only Zika but also dengue fever and chikungunya, which are carried by the same mosquito.

Here in West Virginia, the risk of contracting the Zika virus is very low. The mosquitos here do not transmit Zika, but they do transmit other diseases such as West Nile and La Crosse encephalitis. Especially during mosquito season, from April until October, it’s a good idea to dump out any standing water in a pot or old tire where mosquitos might lay eggs.

For the latest information on the Zika virus, visit http://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html.