A mosquito-borne virus that has been known since 1947, Zika can affect anyone, but pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the virus, which is believed to cause serious and sometimes deadly birth defects.
Transmitted primarily through Aedes mosquitoes, which can be found in the southern United States, the virus may also be transmitted through blood transfusions, sexual contact and laboratory exposure, said Dawn Cheney, infectious control nurse at East Georgia Regional Medical Center.
“Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes,” said Dr. Brian DeLoach, medical director of Georgia Southern University Student Health Services. “Other commonly reported symptoms include muscle pain, headache and pain behind the eyes. The illness is usually mild, with symptoms lasting from several days to a week.”
It is estimated that up to 80 percent of infected individuals will have no symptoms, DeLoach said. Still, while it is not life-threatening to most, it poses a particular danger to unborn fetuses.
“There is strong evidence of a link between the Zika virus and … microcephaly, in which babies are born with undersized brains and skulls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn.
Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should postpone travel plans to areas currently fighting Zika outbreaks, DeLoach said. If travel is necessary, these women should consult their doctors and avoid contact with mosquitoes.
“Travelers to these areas may also be at risk of being infected with dengue or chikungunya viruses,” he said. “Mosquitoes that spread Zika, chikungunya and dengue are aggressive daytime biters, prefer to bite people, and live indoors and outdoors near people. There is no vaccine or medicine available for Zika virus. The best way to avoid … infection is to prevent mosquito bites.”
Cheney recommended residents eliminate standing water around their homes in which mosquitoes may breed.
“Use a good EPA-approved repellent, cover your body, and stay indoors with air conditioning,” she said.
While local outbreaks aren’t expected, it is still very possible that the Zika virus could show up in the area, Wynn said.
Zika “is now a worldwide threat, according to the World Health Organization … on the same level as Ebola, polio and H1N1,” he said. “The Aedes aegypti mosquito, or yellow fever mosquito, does have a presence on the Southeast coast, including Florida and the Gulf Coast.”
Brazil’s Ministry of Health has reported several thousand cases of suspected Zika-related microcephaly since October 2015, he said.
“It’s possible that the baby may be affected, even if the mother doesn’t develop symptoms herself,” Wynn said. “Women who test positive for Zika should be given regular ultrasounds to monitor the development of their babies, the CDC says.”
Cheney suggests women who have traveled out of the country and who experience symptoms of the virus should contact their primary-care physicians and arrange for a screening, which can be conducted at the hospital. Extreme cases with severe symptoms should be seen at an emergency room.
“We have been screening (for diseases) since Ebola came around,” Cheney said.
According to Wynn, the Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and has caused outbreaks in Africa, Southeast Asia and on several Pacific Islands. It is believed to have crossed the Pacific Ocean and introduced in Brazil in 2014, which is currently experiencing the largest known Zika outbreak in history.
Another possible concern being investigated by the CDC is “a suspected link between Zika and an increase in the number of cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks nerve cells,” Wynn said. “It can cause temporary paralysis that can last for weeks.”
Zika has been identified in the following countries: Barbados, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Guyana, Cape Verde and Samoa, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. For more information about the virus, visit www.cdc.gov/zika/.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.