Zika Virus: Travel Warning

zika-virus-mosquit_3561555kNews about the Zika Virus hit major press outlets this week after WHO officials warned Thursday Zika is “spreading explosively” in the Americas. It is estimated to have infected 3-4 million people in the Western Hemisphere in the last 12 months. Some are wondering what all the fuss is about and whether it should impact their mission trip plans.

We recommend concerned travelers contact their physician or travel clinic with specific questions. The CDC has issued travel warnings urging pregnant women and those who are trying to become pregnant to avoid or delay travel to a growing list of countries in Latin America and The Caribbean.

zika-virus-baby-ki_3561556kZika is an especially concerning viral infection for pregnant women because studies have linked it to a dramatic rise in cases of microcephaly (small head) a birth defect thought to occur in babies exposed to Zika while in the womb.

It is thought that the brain of a baby exposed to Zika in the womb does not grow normally causing brain damage and severe developmental delays. Researchers do not fully understand why or how Zika causes brain damage in these babies. Eventually, an answer may be found that leads to treatment or prevention strategies but for now Zika is not treatable and there is no prevention strategy to protect babies in the womb.

zika-virus-baby_3561550kZika is a virus that causes mild symptoms that go away without treatment. In fact, only about 20% of those infected with Zika will actually develop symptoms of illness while the remaining 80% will not even know they have been infected.

The symptoms of Zika commonly include:

  • fever
  • rash
  • joint pain
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • red eyes.

There is no easy test for Zika infection though blood work to detect Zika can be sent within the first week of symptoms to an advanced infectious disease laboratory. In addition to brain damage in babies, Zika has also been linked to an autoimmune neurological illness called Guillain-Barre Syndrome that can cause life-threatening paralysis.

Zika MapZika is carried and spread to humans by certain kinds of mosquitoes. It is most prominent in tropical areas where these species of mosquitoes are most common. It began spreading from an outbreak in Brazil into the tropical areas of Latin America and The Caribbean last May. Previously it had been known only in Africa and Asia (since 1947.) Because Zika had never previously been seen in the Western Hemisphere, the people of the Americas have little or no immunity to this virus. This has helped Zika to spread very rapidly.

During warm months, many areas of the Southern and Midwestern US are home to the mosquitoes that carry Zika. This raises concern that Zika infections will eventually be transmitted in the US. Plans are already in the works to address this concern. So far, though, Zika infections have only been seen in US citizens who have traveled to an area known to have Zika infections among its population.

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