Zika Virus: The Reality, Hype, and Unknown

Alamo City Moms Blog has put together this post in conjunction with our partner, University Health System, to share facts about the Zika virus. If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, it’s always a good idea to discuss potential health complications with your own physician. 

Zika isn’t a Greek side dish or an up-and-coming techno band. It’s a flavivirus in the family of viruses carried and transmitted by arthropods (mosquitoes or ticks). The Aedes mosquito is the guilty party. As if we, in South Texas, need another reason to despise our state bird the mosquito.

Recently, I had a virtual sit-down with Patrick S. Ramsey, MD, MSPH, University of Texas Health Science Center Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist. Topic du jour: Zika.

Zika Virus

Zika’s backstory: Researchers studying yellow fever identified it in 1947, within Uganda’s Zika forest. Yellow fever, a more lethal flavivirus, claims the lives of up to 50% of its victims. Zika wasn’t viewed as a threat or diagnosed and tracked until recently. There is a lot we don’t yet know about Zika. This post contains current information as of early February, 2016.

Zika virus causes self-limiting symptoms in about 20% of those infected. Even then, the symptoms are mild and usually disappear in a week. Most people aren’t sick enough to seek medical care. The remaining infected 80% never show signs of the virus. If you live in South Texas, Zika symptoms look like our snotty, headache-y cedar fever, with the addition of joint pain and rash.

Common Zika Symptoms: fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle pain, and headache.

The exact time from contracting the virus to displaying symptoms (incubation period) is unknown, but estimated at a few days to a week. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) believes the virus stays in the bloodstream for a week, sometimes longer, remaining in semen longer than blood. How much longer is unknown and under study.

How is the Zika virus transmitted?

1. Most Zika cases are mosquito transmitted. The Aedes mosquitoes bite someone with the virus and then pass it to their next human victims.

2. It may be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her baby. This is rare.

  • It’s possible for an infected pregnant woman to give Zika to her unborn child. Scientists are studying if and how that happens.
  • It’s possible for an infected woman to transmit the virus to her baby through birth. You guessed it—this, too, is being researched.
  • At this time, Zika is not believed to be transmitted through breastfeeding. Right now, breastfeeding benefits outweigh the risk of transmitting Zika.

3. Zika may transfer through blood transfusions and sexual contact. As I write this, the CDC’s information is based on only three cases of Zika passed through sexual contact from male to female.

All in all, most cases are passed from mosquitoes to humans. As CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden stated, “The bottom line is mosquitoes are the real culprit here.”

Where is the Zika virus?

Where are those places with active Zika infections? I’m glad you asked. Click here for detailed information.

Source: CDC

Countries and territories with active Zika virus transmission. (Source: CDC)

As of February 10, 2016, 11 states have reported Zika infections. All but one was someone who had recently traveled to a country with high rates of Zika. Texas (10 cases); Florida (nine cases); Washington D.C.; and Puerto Rico have reported confirmed cases of Zika. As of this writing, San Antonio had one case of Zika, which has already resolved and left its victim healthy.

Mild symptoms: What’s the big deal?

Since the slight symptoms usually go away, what’s all the hype? The biggest concern is a possible link of Zika to microcephaly, a birth defect leaving an infant with a small head and abnormal brain development. If you’re pregnant or may get pregnant in the future, you may wonder how this affects you.

Remember, Zika and birth defects are right now only linked, meaning some women who gave birth to babies with birth defects also had the virus. We don’t know if Zika causes birth defects and other problems or if the women coincidentally have the virus from living in areas with high rates of infection. Some data suggests there’s a link and that birth defects may be related to getting Zika early in pregnancy.

Deciphering scary headlines and medical information isn’t always easy.

Dr. Ramsey broke it down for us: “Within the last year, Brazil has experienced an increase in the rare birth defect microcephaly, or small fetal head, which can be associated with adverse brain development. There were only a few well-documented cases of fetal Zika infection in cases of microcephaly.”

Some Brazilian women who experienced fetal death during pregnancy and/or miscarriage also had a Zika infection. There’s not yet conclusive evidence Zika caused these things. The relationship (if any) of the virus to birth defects is being researched.

Other countries (French Polynesia and Columbia) with Zika outbreaks haven’t seen a surge in microcephaly, fetal death, or miscarriage. In French Polynesia’s Zika epidemic of 2015, about 75% of the population tested positive for the Zika virus, but no one was worried about microcephaly, said Dr. Ramsey. There are many unknowns. It’s possible other things, like reporting guidelines and false positives, affected raised birth defects in Brazil.

Be conscious of what you read and where it comes from. Remember, emotional, fearful headlines sell newspapers and encourage you to click and read or watch more, making advertisers very happy. Dig further. Search for yourself. Check out the CDC links provided in and after this post; I’ve vetted them to the best of my ability. Talk to your health care provider, too. I’m sure your local health department can also give you information. Use reason and common sense.

How can you protect yourself from Zika?

It’s simple: If you’re pregnant, don’t have unprotected sex with someone who’s been traveling to countries with Zika. Even if you’re not planning on getting pregnant, the CDC encourages travelers to abstain from sexual contact or properly use condoms after traveling to a Zika-infected area.

Use a latex condom, and use it properly (yes, there’s a right way to do it). Use a condom before any intimate contact and for each new contact. For more details, click here and scroll to the bottom quarter of the page.

Will Zika take over South Texas?

“There’s no major panic at this point. We were in panic mode with Ebola a year ago. It was a far greater and a clearly defined health risk. Here [with Zika], we’re dealing with a lot of unknowns. We will have clarity in the coming weeks, months, and year,” said Dr. Ramsey. Zika is not a lethal disease like Ebola. The often fatal Ebola is caused by a very different virus.

We’ll likely see Zika spread in the U.S. The number of cases is already increasing. However, this could be a little misleading. Reported cases may increase because we now look for it. “It may be that Zika was already here and we didn’t know it because it’s such a mild illness and it only shows visible symptoms in 20% of patients. In the next months and year, we will learn a lot more about the virus and the real risks,” said Dr. Ramsey.

It’s worth pointing out, those same mosquitoes also carry yellow fever and dengue—way more serious diseases—and we don’t see epidemics of them in the U.S.

What are we going to do?

It’s a good time to be involved in pest control. If you’ve always wanted to indulge your entrepreneur skills and invest in that mosquitoes-be-gone tiki-torch start-up company, now is the time!

But seriously, it’s understandably a concern. If you’re traveling to places with Zika virus, stay inside at night when the Aedes mosquito is more active. Stay in places with screens on windows. Whenever you’re outside, Ramsey recommends using a repellent with permethrin on your clothing and DEET on exposed skin. Those annoying Aedes dive bombers are somewhat active during the day, too. That’s also useful here in South Texas, where mosquitoes have their own road crossing signs. The CDC has some great info on mosquito repellents here.

If a pregnant woman travels to an area with Zika virus, Dr. Ramsey recommends “…contacting her obstetric provider right away and watch[ing] for any signs of Zika: fever, runny nose, conjunctivitis (eye redness). If symptoms don’t develop in two weeks, no Zika test is necessary. The provider will likely recommend monthly ultrasounds looking for signs of fetal infection. Should Zika symptoms develop within two weeks of travel, her blood will be tested for evidence of the virus. Monthly ultrasounds will be performed. If there are any signs of fetal infection, further tests may be recommended.”

As of this writing, there is no treatment, vaccine, or cure for Zika. The good news is that it’s self-limiting: runs its course with little fanfare or damage. The concerning news is the potential risk to pregnant women. With a clear calm mind, protection is the best prevention.

Practice protected sex with partners who’ve recently traveled to areas with Zika infections. Avoid traveling to areas with Zika virus. Use preventative measures (DEET, permethrin, mosquito netting, screens) to avoid mosquito bites.

Protection from the zika virus

Source: CDC

While there are many unknowns, new information is found every day. There’s comfort in knowing research is ongoing. Prevention is relatively easy and mainly common sense. Look to the CDC and medical experts for new information.

Links to further information:
Preventing Mosquitoes and Mosquito Bites
Sexual activity recommendations to prevent Zika infections
Your go-to CDC spot for Zika information
City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Zika Fact Sheet
Zika in San Antonio: What should we know with Dr. Ramsey on Texas Public Radio.
For the arthropod nerds, here’s discussion on genetically engineering mosquitos and much more.
San Antonio Health Officials Get Ready for Possible Zika Outbreak

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2 Responses to Zika Virus: The Reality, Hype, and Unknown

  1. Anonymous February 13, 2016 at 7:59 am #

    We were thinking of trying for a third baby after a planned trip to Belize in late April. Should we cancel the trip? If not, how long should we wait to begin trying after the trip? Thanks!

    • Denise
      Denise February 13, 2016 at 11:31 pm #

      Dear Anonymous: Thank you for stopping by and reading. That’s a great question. I shared it with Dr. Ramsey. You’re not alone in asking this question. Recently, he’s had it asked of him many times, as many women are understandably concerned about Zika. He’s addressed it for you, below.

      “The CDC and I always recommend speaking with your health care provider about this and other questions. That said, here is what we know. We’re still learning about the Zika virus, how it is transmitted, how long the virus stays in the body and what the perinatal risks may be. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest a risk of birth defects in future pregnancies once Zika virus clears the blood. We believe that it takes about one week to clear the blood and it clears from semen in up to 11 weeks. The CDC recommends women considering pregnancy talk to their health care provider after traveling to an area with Zika infection. While traveling, especially to a country known to have a high prevalence of Zika, all women considering pregnancy, and their partners, should use mosquito prevention measures and avoid areas with mosquitoes, if possible. Hope that helps. ~ Dr. Ramsey

      *For mosquito bite prevention information, find the link at the end of the post.