Is Zika still around?

Dr Charmaine Ma, BSc(Pharm), MD, Dip Fam Med (HK), CCFP

I recently came back from a holiday trip and, as usual, became the ‘blood donor winner’ of the family by acquiring the most mosquito bites. This got me thinking back to the Zika virus terror that stunned the world in 2015. As the summer draws to a close many of my patients are now planning their snowbird trips to warmer climates during the winter. Although the Zika infection is no longer headline news, should we still be worried when planning our holiday destinations?

What is Zika Virus?

Zika virus is a mosquito-spread infection that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in monkeys. From the 1960’s to 1980’s there were reported mild cases in humans in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific. The major outbreak that stunned worldwide media first occurred in Brazil in March 2015 and was found to be associated with microcephaly (a condition in which babies were born with smaller head circumferences than average) and other pregnancy risks such as miscarriage and preterm birth.

How is it spread?

The virus is primarily spread through the Aedes mosquito and the symptoms (which may not show up for 3-14 days) include fever, rash, red eyes, muscle and joint pain and fatigue which may last about a week. Most people, however, do not develop any symptoms at all. Infection with the virus in adults and older children may become a trigger for other medical conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (a condition where the body’s nervous system attacks our own nerves causing weakness to paralysis) or inflammation of the spinal cord.

It is important to note that Zika virus may be spread from humans through pregnancy (mother to child), sexual contact or transfusion of blood or blood products. This is why it is important to note the travel destinations for both partners if considering pregnancy.

Are there any treatments available?

Unfortunately there is no current treatments available for Zika virus. Most people who develop the flu-like illness should recover in about a week but should consider plenty of rest and fluids. Pregnant women who think they may have visited Zika infected areas or contracted Zika virus should see their doctor for testing.

How do I prevent getting Zika virus?

As there is no treatment available I always recommend my patients to take as many precautions as possible. There is no vaccine available for Zika virus. If men or women are thinking about pregnancy within the next 3 months they should reconsider and discuss with their doctor the risks of visiting areas that may risk exposure to the virus. The CDC has a great website with maps of areas of risk: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/zika-travel-information

Prevention of mosquito bites should always be a top priority for travellers to all areas at risk of insect bites. Apart from the Zika virus, the Aedes mosquito is also responsible for spreading Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever. Prevention includes wearing light coloured clothing that cover as much of the body as possible, using window screens and mosquito nets and applying insect repellent such as DEET. Mosquitoes breed around areas of still water so precautions should be made to remove potential standing water (such as flower pots or trash).

Due to our cold weather there have been no cases of Zika in Canada. Fortunately there are no current outbreaks in any country around the world. It is best to browse the CDC website and speak with your doctor if you are planning to visit warmer climates. Visiting a travel clinic before traveling outside of the country (to discuss vaccines or prevention tips) and staying vigilant upon return (for signs of fever or other illness) is always a great idea. Happy planning and bon voyage!

Resources:

Zika Virus. World Health Organization. 2019. Available at: URL: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/zika-virus

Guillain-Barré-Syndrome. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Available at: URL: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Guillain-Barré-Syndrome-Fact-Sheet

Zika Travel Information. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: URL: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/zika-travel-information

Dr. Charmaine Ma, BSc(Pharm), MD, Dip Fam Med (HK), CCFP