The Zika Virus

Zika Virus was unheard of in the USA until about a year ago. It really came into the news when the Olympics were scheduled in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this past summer. The Zika Virus was present in Brazil thanks to some infected mosquitoes. Some Olympians decided against going to Brazil because they didn’t want to be infected with the virus as it can have potential negative effects on childbearing. Most recently a very few cases of the virus were found in Florida.

Whenever there is something “new” on the news, the first reports can be made sensational. People become anxious and are looking for answers. That is understandable. So in an effort to answer questions about the Zika virus and hopefully, to dispel any myths circulating around, I want to share information with you.

The Zika virus is a relative of the nasty family of viruses that cause dengue and yellow fever, and the West Nile virus. The name comes from a forest in Uganda where the virus first appeared there in 1947. Most Zika virus infections cause a mild illness. However, in pregnant women the virus may cause damage to the baby. They can be born with abnormally small heads and brain development problems.

Mosquitoes are the culprits in spreading the disease. What good are mosquitoes any way? Their bites are itchy and irritating and they are the spreaders of several diseases, including malaria. (Mosquitoes and cockroaches, I don’t understand why they exist.) The mosquito bites an infected person and then bites an uninfected person, passing the virus through the bite. Mothers can also pass it to children during pregnancy and childbirth. There have also been documented cases spread through sexual contact. People at risk are those who have traveled to countries that have the virus infection. You can see why some of the athletes did not want to attend the games in Rio.

Only about 20% of people infected with the virus actually become sick. And those who do get sick usually have mild symptoms, which are:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Red eyes

Signs can last from several days to a week. Most people don’t even go to the hospital. Many recover without knowing they had been infected with the virus. There is a possible link between the Zika virus and a rare neurological condition called Guillain – Barre syndrome. Signs of this illness include weakness in muscles of the arms, legs, and face.

The next question is what to do if you have the symptoms of Zika virus infection. See your doctor, especially if you have recently traveled to a place with Zika. Your doctor may order a blood test to check for Zika or other viral diseases with similar symptoms. If you are pregnant and have recently traveled to a country with Zika infection, see your doctor even if you don’t have symptoms.

The next question going through your mind is what you can do to protect your family and yourself, right? There is no vaccine yet and no specific treatment. You can still be safe, though. Start by preventing mosquito bites, especially when you travel. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Sleep indoors or under a mosquito net. Use insect repellants. If you are pregnant, avoid traveling to areas where Zika is spreading. If your spouse has lived in or traveled to an area with Zika, either abstain from sex or use condoms.

Knowledge can take a “bite” out of fear and the unknown. As the old commercial used to say, “Knowledge is power.”

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