With the world expected to decend upon Rio de Janeiro this August for the Summer Olympics, recent outbreaks throughout North and South America of the Zika virus - a disease primarily spread from the bite of an infected mosquito and causing symptoms like fever, joint pain, rash and conjunctivities - has raised some cause for concern. In fact, earlier this month, the World Health Organization issued a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and, on February 8, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have elevated response efforts for the Zika virus to a Level 1 activation, their highest.
To get a better understanding of the Zika virus as well as measures for prevention, we've turned to Dr. Mia Taormina, an infectious disease and travel medicine specialist for some advice:
OutTraveler: What exactly is the Zika virus and where/how would someone get it?
Dr. Taormina: "Zika is a disease spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, but can also be sexually transmitted from a man to his sexual partners. The CDC are recommending that men who have lived in or traveled to an area with Zika virus abstain from sex or use condoms following their visit. We don’t yet know if women can transmit the virus to partners."
OT: It seems the symptoms are generally pretty mild. Why all the concern?
Dr. Taormina: "While people usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and very rarely die of Zika, we are seeing an uptick in Guillain-Barre, a rare and sometimes fatal affliction that is the most common cause of general paralysis in the West. The connection to Zika is still being explored but cases have risen in many of the same regions affected by Zika. Fortunately, most people that contract the Zika virus will not face paralysis or extreme symptoms; typically only one in five experience a mild fever, rash, joint pain and/or conjunctivitis (red eyes) lasting several days to a week.
We are concerned that an infected person bitten by a mosquito in the U.S. could cause the disease to spread here. Southern states are particularly susceptible and already preparing for an outbreak.
It’s important to note that prevention is most critical for pregnant women, who may pass the virus to their unborn child. Evidence suggests the Zika virus leads to an increased risk for congenital microcephaly and other abnormalities in the brain and eye of the baby. All pregnant women who have traveled to endemic areas as listed on the CDC website are advised to contact their OB/GYN to see if testing is needed."
OT: What precautions would you recommend a traveler take when heading abroad to minimize the likelihood of contracting or spreading the Zika virus?
Dr. Taormina: "Pregnant women or women (and their partners) who are attempting to become pregnant should cancel their plans to high risk areas. Additionally, anyone with a compromised immune system or chronic disease that makes them more susceptible to severe infection, as well as the very young and very old, should consider postponing their trip.
For everyone else, it’s important to do what you can to avoid being bitten by the Aedes mosquito, which carries the Zika virus. Fortunately, Aedes mosquitos are poor fliers and only tend to bite during the day. I recommend scheduling outdoor activities around mosquitos’ feeding hours. You can still enjoy your holiday with a few simple tweaks to your schedule:
• Hike and bike at dawn and dusk to avoid peak mosquito activity
• Avoid wilderness and brush whenever possible
• Cover up when you’re outside—long sleeves and pants double as sun protection
• Use insect repellants—particularly those containing DEET—to enhance protection; reapply often.
If you think you may have the Zika virus, talk to your physician. They may want you to be screened through a specialized blood test. To treat the symptoms, get plenty of rest, drink fluids and take acetaminophen (Tylenol) to reduce fever."
OT: Every year there seems to be a new disease - SARS, Avian flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome - that raises an alert but then, fortunately, doesn’t turn into the widespread pandemic we’re lead to believe is coming. Do you think there a danger in the public taking these kinds of warnings less and less seriously?
Dr. Taormina: "Please take the Zika virus seriously. The world is increasingly connected and we are likely to see more pandemics in coming years. With Brazil hosting the Olympics this year, there’s a great deal of concern about Zika spreading rapidly around the world. The good news? Simple preventative measures can ensure your safety without diminishing your vacation. In my travel medicine practice, I partner with patients to help them evaluate their personal risk in situations such as these. When there’s no obvious reason to postpone travel, I offer strategies to help my patients lower their risk of infection while enjoying the trip."
Additional information on the Zika virus can be found at the CDC website for travelers.
Dr. Mia Taormina is the Chair of the Department of Infectious Diseases at DuPage Medical Group in Chicago’s Western suburbs. She is an infectious disease and travel medicine specialist who received her D.O. degree at Michigan State University and completed her residency and fellowship training at Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich. Her clinical interests include treatment of HIV/AIDS, complicated skin, bone and joint infections, and general infectious disease care in addition to travel medicine and tropical diseases.