By: Dr. Stacy Meyer
As a parent and a pediatrician, Zika virus, a virus that can cause severe birth defects, has certainly gotten my attention. As I am sure you have been hearing on the news, this virus has now been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly. Microcephaly means small head and is generally due to abnormal brain development or growth. Infants born with microcephaly can have developmental delays, facial distortion, mental retardations and seizures.
The area of greatest concern remains South and Central American countries but there are now over 50 suspected cases in the United States in over 13 states. These United States cases were acquired in South/Central American countries, but as the disease comes closer to home, the higher the risk of infection of local mosquitos and eventual transmission. Florida, with over nine cases, is already working to diminish the mosquito population in an attempt to contain and prevent infection of mosquitos in the area. If these mosquitos became infected by biting individuals with the virus still in their blood, they could then spread this disease.
Here are some quick facts about the virus and how to protect yourself as we will likely hear about more cases in months to come…
What is this virus and how is it transmitted?
Zika virus is a kind of virus called flavivirus (yellow fever and dengue fever are also falviviruses) that is transmitted primarily by mosquitos. There have also been cases of the virus being transmitted by blood transfusion, as it lives in the blood for approximately a week after infection. There is also now a case of transmission by sexual intercourse that occurred in Texas this month and is the first transmission in the United States. It is currently unknown how long the virus can live in semen and be a risk of transmission. WHO also reports Zika virus has been found in breast milk but they are unsure if it can be transmitted by breastfeeding.
Zika virus has been around for years, but recently there have been an increase in cases of infected people and infants. According to the WHO, there have been over 400 cases of confirmed microcephaly due to the virus in Brazil since November with thousands more being investigated. To put this in perspective there were only 147 cases total in 2014.
What are the symptoms?
People who are infected with Zika virus often report symptoms such as rash, fever, joint pain and headache. The infection is usually mild and self-limiting but the WHO reports it has been linked to a more severe reaction called Guillan Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to weakness and tingling in the extremities that can progress to complete paralysis and respiratory failure. Pregnant women infected during pregnancy have the additional risk of the fetus being born with microcephaly.
How is the virus treated?
There is currently no vaccine or known treatment to prevent the possible complications of this virus.
What can you do to protect yourself?
As the virus spreads through additional Southern American and Central American countries, the CDC has warned against travel to these places for women who are currently pregnant. For women living in area of possible infection, be sure to wear long pants and sleeves and use repellant when outdoors to prevent bites. In addition, using barrier protection during sexual intercourse with any person who could have been exposed to the virus can help prevent infection.
About Dr. Stacy Meyer
Dr. Meyer is a pediatric endocrinologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital. She is the mother of two boys who she lovingly refers to as “Busy Bee” and “Sprout!” As part of the “Dr. Mom Squad,” Dr. Meyer blogs about her experiences as both as doctor and a mom and hopes to share insight to other parents on issues related to both parenting and kids health.