Chances are that you’ve heard an increasing number of news stories about the Zika Virus, a mosquito borne virus linked to babies being born with underdeveloped brains.
The World Health Organisation says the virus is likely to spread across nearly all of the Americas and has already been found in 21 countries in the Caribbean, North and South America. Symptoms include mild fever, conjunctivitis and headache.
So let’s get down to basics and what that potentially means for you.
The Zika virus is transmitted via mosquitos although not every mosquito can carry the virus. According to the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, some species of the Aedes mosquito are known to transmit the disease. The mosquito’s bite transmits the virus, spreading it to people in certain areas of the world.
In the past Zika was only found in the Pacific Islands, South-East Asia and Africa. More recently, the virus has made its way around Central and South America and has become an increasing risk to travellers to the area.
So if you’re planning to travel (or have recently been) to any of the following areas, please take note:
- Cape Verde
- El Salvador
- French Guiana
- Puerto Rico
- Saint Martin
- Suriname, and
Even though these are the primary areas of transmission, infected patients can bring the virus to other places.
The biggest concern is the risk of microcepahaly – a condition where babies are born unusually small heads and underdeveloped brains.
Brazil has recorded a huge spike of almost 4,000 cases of microcephaly since October (compared to just 160 in the previous year), and a number of Central and South American nations have recently asked women to delay pregnancy fearing this is a direct result of the Zika virus infection.
So, what really happens if you catch Zika?
Some people get the virus, and have no symptoms at all. Others may get a rash, fever, severe headache or pain in the joints, bones or muscles. Unlike some of those scarier viruses, this one rarely even requires hospitalisation.
If Zika sometimes has no symptoms and rarely requires as much as a hospital stay, why is it getting so much media play? Outbreaks of the virus in Central and South America (most notably, Brazil) have been linked to birth defects. What types of birth defects are associated with this disease? Microcephaly, a medical condition that is characterized by an extremely small head size. Along with the effect on the child’s appearance, babies with microcephaly typically have smaller than normal brains. A host of issues are also associated with the condition. These include hearing loss, seizures, speech delays, movement and balance problems, feeding issues and vision problems.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently advising pregnant women, and those who plan on becoming pregnant soon, to avoid travel in the areas where Zika transmission is documented.
There is no treatment and vaccine for the virus.
This makes staying away from the known active Zika areas a must-do. Traveling to one of the outbreak areas puts you at risk for contracting the disease. Add a pregnancy to the equation, and you have the possibility of a severe birth defect.
With the upcoming summer 2016 summer Olympics being held in Rio de Janeiro there are growing concerns over visitors and the spread of the virus. Not only does the virus put visitors at risk, but it also may affect their unborn children. What’s being done to eradicate the threat? The only Zika-proof way to avoid the virus is to avoid the area entirely. That said, the draw of the Olympics may prove stronger than the travel advisories. In advance of the major world event, Rio’s mayor’s office and health department are working to eliminate as many mosquitos as possible. This includes getting rid of breeding grounds, such as stagnant pools of water. Do these efforts mean that the Olympics will be Zika free? Although the city’s efforts may reduce the mosquito population (and reduce the possibility of contracting Zika), the risk still exists.
What’s the takeaway here? If possible, stay away from the affected areas. That is – if you’re pregnant or planning on getting pregnant soon. If a South American honeymoon/baby-making trip is on the agenda, think again.