We as a country seem primed to worry, and often over-dramatize every new virus that comes along. That might be a case of “survivor’s guilt,” as our public health system works remarkably well to protect us from viruses that hit developing nations.
The latest virus making headlines, Zika, came from the Zika Forest in Uganda. One of the last viruses that made a huge impact worldwide was Ebola, which also started in Africa.
While Ebola was spread through direct contact and body fluids, Zika is only vector-transmitted, which is actually quite lucky for us. Vector-borne simply means the only way to get the disease is to be bit by a certain type of mosquito, after that very same mosquito bit someone recently infected with the Zika virus. Thank goodness this isn’t Ebola!
If it sounds like almost lottery odds to get the Zika virus, it is. We have to start with someone with a Zika infection, perhaps infected in Brazil while attending the Olympics. This person then needs to come home while still sick and walk into a mosquito swarm within a few days. Then, one of these mosquitoes that bites the sick person has to bite other people.
This virus, as long as you are not pregnant, is no big deal. Approximately 75% of people who are infected don’t even know they are sick. If you are one of the unlucky 25%, you will get fever, joint pain, a rash and conjunctivitis. A couple of days later, you will be well. We have no treatment or vaccine for the Zika virus.
The Zika virus is problematic for one group of patients: pregnant women. This virus seems to increase the rate of a severe congenital birth defect called microcephaly, which means “small head/small brain.” This is a bad situation, and a child with this type of defect typically only lives a few days. We don’t have any way to help the brain develop normally after the child is born.
This virus is a cousin of the Dengue and Chikungunya viruses. Both of these are distinctly uncommon in our country. Malaria is a much more transmittable disease, and is also a mosquito-borne disease. We import a rare case of malaria, but you never see an outbreak of malaria in this country. Fortunately people do not normally fly back from South America or Africa and immediately go camping in Minnesota.
We do not have a vaccine for any virus in this family, and any vaccine under development is several years away.
The weak link in the spread of any vector-borne disease is the vector. You keep mosquito populations low, and Zika will not spread. This can be done by simply removing or disinfecting as much stagnant water as possible, which serves as a mosquito breeding ground.
In the meantime, pregnant women should not travel to Brazil this summer to watch the Olympics.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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