The Truth About Zika Virus

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There have been a number of new viruses that have made their appearance on the world scene over the past decade. Whether these viruses have existed for a long time, and are now being seen because of man’s encroachment on the world’s jungles and rain forests or whether these viruses are new is anyone’s guess. One of the most recent viruses to arrive in the medical arena is the zika virus.

The number of zika virus cases in the United States has been rising. The virus is transmitted by the bite of the Aedes mosquito. The virus can also be transmitted sexually. The virus belongs to the family Flaviviridae. Symptoms consist of fever, rash, conjunctivitis, malaise, headache and musculoskeletal pain. In most cases, there aren’t any symptoms, but the person can still transmit the virus sexually to someone else. The symptoms will usually resolve in less than a week. In some cases, the virus can produce Guillain-Barre syndrome. This is a syndrome which is sometimes seen after vaccinations as well. The patient’s muscles are paralyzed which can lead to intubation and being placed on a respirator if the intercostal muscles are paralyzed. In women, the virus may cause birth defects like microcephaly.

Treatment for the zika virus does not exist. The symptoms can be treated with anti-inflammatories like tylenol, and adequate hydration. A vaccine does not exist at this time although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are attempting to develop one.

Besides microcephaly, the zika virus can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. An infection in the early part of the pregnancy has the worse outcomes for the fetus although infection can occur at any time during the pregnancy.

NIH recommends that people who have traveled to an area known to have the zika virus use condoms or avoid sexual intercourse with a pregnant partner. There is a list of countries on the internet that are known to have the zika virus. In the United States, the zika virus has been found in South Florida and in Brownsville, Texas. If you are pregnant, you might consider postponing travel to these areas. If you must travel to one of these areas, use plenty of mosquito repellent. If you live in one of the infested areas, drain standing water to avoid mosquitoes laying their eggs in the water.

If you have traveled to one of these areas, you should wait a few months to get pregnant even if there weren’t any symptoms of an infection according to Scott C. Weaver, PhD, director, Institute for Human Infections and Immunity, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Men and women are advised to practice safe sex or abstinence for six months upon returning from one of these areas even if there is not a planned pregnancy.

Pregnant women should be offered zika virus testing 2 to 12 weeks after returning from an infested area. Ultrasounds should also be performed every three to four weeks to check on the baby’s growth.

Two tests can be used to test for the zika virus. One test is to look for the virus’s genetic code, but this test will not work after two weeks of being infected as the body will get rid of this marker. Another test is to look for antibodies in the patient’s blood. The antibodies can be detected up to three months after the initial infection.

There are concerns that the zika virus may be associated with other medical problems. Zika has been implicated in an autoimmune condition known as acute disseminated encephalomyelitis which causes the immune system to attack the myelin of the nerves in the spinal cord and the brain similar to multiple sclerosis. The virus has also been implicated in thrombocytopenia (a lowering of the platelet count) which has resulted in one death.

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