Zika Virus Sparks Travel Alert

Photo courtesy: Google Images

Photo courtesy: Google Images

By Carol Heyen

The World Health Organization’s Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan, has declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” regarding the Zika virus. The level of threat, the lack of vaccinations, reliable diagnoses, treatments and population immunity, and the ability for worldwide transmission of the virus prompted the declaration.

The disease, which spreads through the bites of infected mosquitoes, usually produces a mild fever, skin rash and conjunctivitis.  Symptoms last 2-7 days, and begin 3-7 days after the person has been bitten by the infected mosquito. There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available.

The principal danger of the Zika virus is to the unborn.  According to the PAHO, during large outbreaks in French Polynesia and Brazil in 2013 and 2015 respectively, national health authorities reported potential neurological and auto-immune complications of the Zika virus disease. Recently in Brazil, local health authorities have observed an increase in Zika virus infections in the general public, as well as an increase in stillborn babies, and an increase in babies born with microcephaly in northeast Brazil. Microcephaly is a condition where the head and brain of the affected child are abnormally small, sometimes causing severe birth defects and death.  Agencies investigating the Zika outbreaks are finding an increasing body of evidence about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued a Level-2 (Practice Enhanced Precautions) travel alert for people traveling to certain regions and countries affected by the Zika virus, including Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

The Zika virus, spread by Aedes mosquitoes, is affecting Africa and nearly all of the Americas, according to the Pan American Health Organization

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) recommends special travel precautions for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant: Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip. Pregnant women who traveled to an area with ongoing Zika virus transmission during pregnancy should be evaluated for Zika virus infection if they had any symptoms suggestive of Zika or if their baby has evidence of microcephaly or brain calcifications.

According to the CDPH, the mosquito Aedes aegypti has been detected in twelve counties in California, and Aedes albopictus has been identified in five counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Thus far in California, Zika infections have been documented only in persons who were infected while traveling outside the United States. While the risk for transmission of Zika, chikungunya, or dengue viruses is still low in California, infected travelers coming back to California can transmit these viruses to Aedes mosquitoes that bite them. This may lead to additional people becoming infected if they are then bitten by those mosquitoes. To date no local transmission of Zika infections have occurred in California.

The CDC recommends taking appropriate precautions if you must travel to affected countries.  Pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant should review the recommendations listed earlier. If you have returned from an affected region and have fever with rash and/or joint pain within the week following your return, contact your doctor and let him know that you have been in an affected area.

There are no vaccines to prevent Zika infection. Preventing mosquito bites is the only way to avoid becoming infected.  The CDC gives these recommendations to keep yourself safe:

  • Use insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol for long lasting protection. If you use both sunscreen and insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first and then the repellent.
  • Using insect repellent is safe and effective. Pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding can and should choose an EPA-registered insect repellent and use it according to the product label.
  • When weather permits, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Use air conditioning or window/door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. If you are not able to protect yourself from mosquitoes inside your home or hotel, sleep under a mosquito bed net.
  • Help reduce the number of mosquitoes outside your home or hotel room by emptying standing water from containers such as flowerpots or buckets.