By Daniel Hardison and Katie Skaggs, Pharmacy Residents, BHMC-North Little Rock
There is currently an epidemic of Zika virus in the Americas, Caribbean, and Pacific, which the World Health Organization has described as “spreading explosively.”
Although it may be news to us, Zika outbreaks have happened before. The earliest cases were detected in Africa, and the first documented outbreak was in Micronesia almost 10 years ago.
The first documented case of Zika in the United States occurred this past winter. To date, there have been more than 500 confirmed cases in the United States with two of those in Arkansas. The good news is that all of those cases resulted from traveling to affected areas outside of the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has heightened its efforts against Zika to “Level 1.” This is the agency’s highest response level, and it expects to see cases of local transmission as the summer continues.
Symptoms of Zika occur in about 20 percent of patients. The symptoms typically consist of low-grade fever, itchy rash, swollen eyes, and pain in the hands, feet, and joints. It can also lead to serious neurologic complications, which include Guillain-Barre Syndrome, brain ischemia, and spinal-cord inflammation. Another complication is meningoencephalitis, or infection and inflammation of the brain and meninges.
Perhaps the most talked about symptoms of this virus are the risks to pregnant women and their unborn babies. Congenital birth defects and fetal loss are a major health concern in areas with high rates of infection.
A recent study showed fetal abnormalities in almost 30 percent of pregnant women who tested positive for Zika. Babies born to mothers infected with Zika can have several different rare central-nervous-system abnormalities. One abnormality is microcephaly, a condition in which the baby’s head is smaller than normal. Children affected often have physical and cognitive developmental delays. Other birth defects include a condition in which the baby collects abnormal amounts of fluid in the skin, heart, and lungs. This is known as hydrops fetalis. Fortunately, babies who are exposed to Zika after birth tend to present with mild symptoms similar to adults.
There are several methods by which Zika can be contracted. The most common method is via mosquito bite, specifically the aedes mosquito, which is found in Arkansas and across the entire southern United States. Other routes of transmission include mother-to-fetus, sexual contact, blood transfusion, and organ transplant.
Researchers are currently working on a Zika virus vaccine, but since the vaccine is not yet available, it is important that proper preventative measures are taken to protect yourself and those around you. Treatment options include rest and treatment of symptoms such as drinking plenty of fluids and taking Tylenol for pain and fever.
Take the proper precautions to protect yourself from mosquito bites by wearing long pants and long sleeves. Use insect repellants and mosquito screens when possible while you’re outside. EPA-approved insect repellants are safe for use by pregnant women when used as directed. Johnson’s Baby Oil and Avon Skin-So-Soft are effective insect repellants for infants.
Avoid allowing stagnant water to pool where mosquitoes can lay eggs. Women who are or may become pregnant and men with pregnant female sexual partners should stay inside as much as possible to avoid mosquito bites. Men who test positive for Zika should avoid unprotected sexual contact for at least six months. Also, men who have been exposed to Zika through travel or sexual contact should avoid unprotected sex for at least eight weeks. Barrier protection such as the use of a condom has been suggested. Pregnant women should avoid travel to areas with mosquito transmission of Zika virus.
The health risks associated with this virus are very real. By being careful and taking the appropriate cautionary measures, these risks can be minimized. For more information, visit cdc.gov/zika.