On Monday, Feb. 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus as a global health emergency, prompting world governments and nonprofit organizations to increase funding to combat the disease. Despite the “emergency” designation, WHO has been unable to link Zika to the increasing rate of birth defects in affected countries, particularly in Brazil, but said that it estimates nearly four million people will be infected with Zika by the end of 2016.
As of Feb. 10, approximately two dozen cases of the Zika virus have been reported throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties and New York City. Zika virus is a mosquito-borne illness that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys. It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, South America, Asia and the Pacific.
Zika virus is transmitted to people through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, the same mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. Zika virus disease outbreaks were reported for the first time from the Pacific in 2007 and 2013 (Yap and French Polynesia, respectively), and in 2015 from Brazil and Colombia and Cape Verde, Africa.
Transmission between humans is not confirmed according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the WHO, but the CDC is suggesting that, until more is known, pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor or other healthcare professional first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip. Pregnant women should abstain or use a condom for the duration of the pregnancy if their sexual partner has traveled to or lives in an area with active Zika virus transmission.
Health authorities are currently investigating a potential link between Zika virus in pregnant women and microcephaly in their babies. Until more is known, women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should take extra care to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Pregnant women who are infected should be closely monitored during their pregnancy.
The incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) of Zika virus disease is not clear but is likely to be a few days. The symptoms are similar to other infections such as dengue, and include fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise and headache. These symptoms are usually mild and last for two to seven days.
Infection with Zika virus may be suspected based on symptoms and recent history (e.g. residence or travel to an area where Zika virus is known to be present). Zika virus diagnosis can only be confirmed by laboratory testing for the presence of Zika virus in the blood or other body fluids, such as urine or saliva.
Zika virus disease is usually relatively mild and requires no specific treatment. People sick with Zika virus should get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids, and treat pain and fever with common medicines. If symptoms worsen, they should seek medical care and advice. There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine available.
Mosquitoes and their breeding sites pose a significant risk factor for Zika virus infection. Prevention and control relies on reducing mosquitoes through source reduction (removal and modification of breeding sites) and reducing contact between mosquitoes and people.
This can be done by using insect repellent; wearing clothes (preferably light-colored) that cover as much of the body as possible; using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows; and sleeping under mosquito nets. It is also important to empty, clean or cover containers that can hold water such as buckets, garbage cans and flower pots, so that places where mosquitoes can breed are removed.
Zika is not cause for panic. It is important to understand that there are no cases of mosquito-borne Zika virus cases reported in the United States. There are only travel-associated cases, where travellers have been infected while visiting an area of the world where Zika and Aedes mosquitoes are found. The number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase, but 80 percent of Zika cases will not be diagnosed.
If you have recently traveled to an area where Zika is found and have symptoms, visit your doctor and tell them where and when you traveled. Visit www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html or www.health.ny.gov/diseases/zika_virus for more information. Additionally, the state has launched a new information hotline (888-364-4723) for New Yorkers to call and learn more about the virus.
—Information compiled from CDC and WHO.