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Zika Virus

Zika virus? Do you need to be worried? Unless you are planning or have recently completed travel to South or Central America or Sub-Saharan Africa or Miami as of June, currently the answer is no. If you have been to those areas, especially if you’re pregnant, read on.

The virus and its resulting illness were first identified in the Zika forest of Uganda in the 1940’s, although it has likely been present in tropical Africa for much longer. It was first detected in the Americas last year in Brazil and has since been found as far north as Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. The illness seems to be primarily transmitted through mosquito bites. The only evidence of human-to-human spread is through sexual contact. There is no indication that the virus is spread through cough, sneeze, or skin contact.

80% of people who are bitten by infected mosquitoes do not get sick. The remaining 20% have symptoms ranging from mild joint aches and low-grade fevers to the equivalent of a bad case of the flu. There have not been any deaths linked to Zika.

The major concern from Zika is its potential effects on fetal development. Specifics are not yet completely understood, but during some pregnancies infected by Zika, it seems likely that the virus disrupts normal brain development. This can result in a condition called microcephaly, a medical term that translates from the Greek roots meaning “small head”. Babies with microcephaly can have serious problems ranging from thought, movement, and behavioral abnormalities to seizure disorders. Currently, there are no cures for the resulting problems, so preventing maternal infection is critical.

Medical agencies from around the globe, including the World Health Organization and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are working to better understand the virus and develop vaccines and treatments. They are also researching ways to help pregnant women who have been bitten by mosquitoes in countries where Zika is present.

Women who are pregnant and have been to countries with Zika virus should tell their obstetrician so appropriate testing and monitoring can be discussed. Those who are considering travel south of the U.S. are strongly encouraged to postpone trips until after their babies are born.

Until more is understood, all women who need to travel to countries with Zika virus should strongly consider taking measures to prevent pregnancy until at least a month or two after travel is completed. Men who have traveled to these countries should abstain from sex or use a latex condom for at least two months if their partner is pregnant or could become pregnant.

It is also recommended for people of either sex to use mosquito repellant when visiting tropical areas. Not only is Zika a concern, but other more potentially dangerous viruses, including the ones that cause Dengue, West Nile, and Yellow Fevers, are transmitted by the same mosquitoes. Of these, only Yellow Fever is preventable by vaccination.

Whether you are trying to prevent mosquito bites in Brazil or Barstow, the best defenses are long sleeves and pants (no spandex) and applying products with DEET, picaridin, or lemon eucalyptus oil. All are recommended by the CDC and other experts as safe and effective. The higher the concentration of the product, the longer the effects will last. Anyone outside for extended periods should reapply as directed on the label. Pregnant women can safely use these products on their skin and clothing.

The Calvert County Health Department will continue to work with our partners at the Maryland Department of Health and the CDC as we track developments concerning the spread and health effects of Zika virus. This includes the potential for infected mosquitoes in the US as spring and summer arrive. Our goal is to insure that Calvert residents have access to the most accurate and timely information available. You can check our website and Facebook page for updates.

Larry Polsky, MD, MPH
Calvert County Health Department
Prince Frederick, MD

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